Polluter pays principle, key to environmental justice

Human action and inaction are leading to planetary crises of pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change.

CLIMATE change is causing weather and climate extremes globally, exerting pressure on already strained food and health systems, causing mass displacements. Human action and inaction are leading to planetary crises of pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change.

All this results in a negative impact on humanity, especially access to adequate food, water, education, housing and development. And in all this crisis, it is the poor people, developing and least developed countries that are severely affected, despite contributing the least. In addition, disadvantaged and marginalised groups, among them women, people with disabilities, elderly and youths, are hit the hardest given their less ability to adapt to the consequences.

In response to the accelerating impacts of these crises, a global movement has grown, demanding action and justice to address these issues. Structural inequalities and poverty brought about by environmental delinquencies can only be addressed at the altar of environmental justice.

In seeking environmental justice, several tools have been developed and the polluter must pay principle is one of them. The “polluter pays principle” is a basic environmental governance concept that holds that the costs associated with preventing or mitigating any environmental delinquency should be borne by the individual or corporate entity responsible for causing it. The principle is a central concept in environmental law and policy. It is based on the idea that those who cause environmental damage, pollution, or degradation should bear the costs associated with measures to remedy or prevent such damage.

In other words, the principle includes elements of responsibility, prevention and compensation that could be used to reduce such environmental impacts as climate change, the degradation of ecosystems and biodiversity loss.

This principle is based on the idea that businesses or individuals should be held accountable for the negative effects their activities have on the environment. This accountability principle comes in various shapes and colours which includes fines, penalties, or other policy instruments designed to discourage deviation.

By forcing polluters to pay for the costs of their actions, the polluter pays principle seeks to encourage the adoption of cleaner technologies and practices, and also provides an incentive for individuals and companies to be more proactive in preventing environmental damage. The principle has for years been the cornerstone of environmental policy and regulation around the world.


The principle was mooted in 1969 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. However, the principle was enshrined in international law in 1992 by the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which established it as a fundamental principle of sustainable development. Since then, the principle has become a key component of environmental law and policy in many countries and is now being incorporated into international agreements in waste and water management, waste disposal and air pollution control, among others.

Below are a few examples of how the polluter pays principle operates in environmental governance.


Several years ago, the Zimbabwean government introduced carbon taxes at the rate of US$0,03 per litre of petroleum and diesel. This is meant to decrease demand for products that produce high emissions and encourages their producers to make them less carbon-intensive. Governments also levy a tax on companies which produce carbon emissions or require them to purchase carbon credits to offset their emissions. This incentivises companies to reduce their carbon footprint to save costs.


The Environmental Management Agency usually fines companies for flouting environmental laws and regulations. The Environment Management Act (Chapter 20:27) prohibits the discharge of pollutants into the environment. In line with this principle, the law compels the polluter to bear the cost of decontaminating the polluted area. The company is held responsible for the clean-up and pays for the cost of the clean-up.

Emission regulations

Governments set legal limits on the amount of pollution that companies emit and mandate the use of pollution control measures. Companies that violate these regulations face fines or penalties.

The polluter must pay principle is necessary for various reasons, chief among them being to encourage responsible behaviour. The principle is meant to encourage individuals, businesses and governments to act responsibly towards the environment by making them accountable for their actions.

The principle also acts as an economic incentive for polluting entities to reduce emissions or alternatively find other sustainable methods of production that are less damaging to the environment.

The principle also encourages individuals and companies to voluntarily comply with environmental policies and regulations aimed at protecting the environment, knowing that they will not get away with murder in the event of non-compliance.

The polluter must pay principle is a source of funding for the remediation of environmental damage caused by polluters, as the polluters are responsible for paying the costs.

Ultimately, the principle is meant to promote sustainable development by supporting environmentally-friendly production and consumption practices, which can ultimately lead to a more sustainable future.


However, although the polluter pays principle has several advantages in mitigating the impact of delinquency on the environment, it also has several weaknesses, which include challenges that come with its enforcement.

Oftentimes, it is difficult to enforce the polluter pays principle given the organisational or financial muscle of most of the polluters. Some multinational companies usually dodge being held accountable by shifting their activities to other jurisdictions or countries with less restrictive environmental policies.

Moreso, establishing the link between a particular polluter and the corresponding environmental damage can be challenging if not difficult. In most cases, it may impose a substantial burden on the affected party to provide adequate evidence of causation and may lead to lengthy and costly legal battles.

The polluter pays principle has been criticised for its failure to address distributive justice, especially in cases whereby the polluter is a corporation which enjoys a monopoly. All things being equal, the principle places financial burden on the company, which it passes on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

At present, there is no agreement on how the principle can be applied at a global level, which renders it nearly impossible to apply in cross-border environmental issues. The polluter pays principle may vary considerably across different countries and regions because of differences in laws, leading to disparities in outcomes.

While the struggle for environmental justice remains complex and broad, the polluter pays principle remains the hallmark of accountability and demanding compensation in a quest to reduce the impacts of environmental crimes.

Cliff Chiduku is a communications, public policy and governance expert with interests in agriculture, climate change and environmental issues. He writes in his personal capacity. Feedback: [email protected] or call/app +263775716517.

Related Topics