Priority for the Worse Off and the Social Cost of Carbon

The social cost of carbon (SCC) is a monetary measure of the harms from carbon emission. Specifically, it is the reduction in current consumption that produces a loss in social welfare equivalent to that caused by the emission of a ton of CO2. The standard approach is to calculate the SCC using a discounted-utilitarian social welfare function (SWF)—one that simply adds up the well-being numbers (utilities) of individuals, as discounted by a weighting factor that decreases with time. The discounted-utilitarian SWF has been criticized both for ignoring the distribution of well-being, and for including an arbitrary preference for earlier generations. Here, we use a prioritarian SWF, with no time-discount factor, to calculate the SCC in the integrated assessment model RICE. Prioritarianism is a well-developed concept in ethics and theoretical welfare economics, but has been, thus far, little used in climate scholarship. The core idea is to give greater weight to well-being changes affecting worse off individuals. We find substantial differences between the discounted-utilitarian and non-discounted prioritarian SCC.

Issue Date:
Aug 30 2016
Publication Type:
Working or Discussion Paper
PURL Identifier:
Total Pages:
JEL Codes:
Q54; I30
Series Statement:

 Record created 2017-04-01, last modified 2018-01-23

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