COLUMBIA: pollution charges succeed where legislation has failed to get results

A new system of pollution charges to complement environmental legislation is getting results in Columbia where the traditional 'command and control' approach has failed, according to a study by the World Bank's New Ideas in Pollution Regulation (NIPR) programme.

For the past few decades environmental policymakers have operated under a uniform regulatory practice called command-and-control. Under this traditional system, pioneered by the large, highly industrialized nations of the developed world, regulators impose national standards for emission of pollutants by industries and enforce the standards through active monitoring of factories and imposition of civil or criminal penalties for non-compliance.
Yet there is universal agreement from regulators, industries and communities that command-and-control had been too burdensome and expensive for regional environmental agencies in Colombia to implement, and in fact, pollution was increasing, according to NIPR.

“We haven’t had any results with command-and-control instruments … what really happened is that we have just the rules … if they don’t follow the rules nothing happens … nobody was punished because they were polluting … that is the reason we have started thinking about the new way of doing efforts, new directions,” says Eduardo Verano De La Rosa, former Environment Minister 1997-8.

The Environment Ministry devised initial charges on two water pollutants, biological oxygen demand (BOD) and total suspended solids (TSS). This new economic instrument, however, was introduced with an unusual variation. All key stakeholders: industries, municipalities, and communities were required to sit down to negotiate pollution reduction targets over a five-year period. The base rate for the charge would increase incrementally until the polluter met the required targets during this period.

The charges would be implemented by the 33 regional environmental agencies in Colombia. The Ministry decided to launch the program in the ecologically-sensitive Rio Negro watershed area near Medellin because the regional agency, Corporacion Autonoma Regional del Rionegro-Nare (CONARE), was both effective in managing environmental policy and had good working relationships with key stakeholders.

In the first semester after implementation of the charges, CONARE recorded a dramatic 28% drop in BOD pollution from industrial sources in the Rio Negro basin.

This was more than halfway to the 50% targeted reduction level agreed to in the negotiation phase.

Whether CONARE’s experience of significant pollution reductions will continue, or whether it will be duplicated in other regional agencies is still to be seen. But according to NIPR, the important thing is that environmental management policies in Colombia, and the way all stakeholders view the environment, have changed permanently.

According to Dr Fabio Arjona Hincapie, Vice-Minister of Environment: “The experience we had with command-and-control mechanisms in 23 years, we have had very little pollution control results and really very high costs of pollution reduction. What we are trying to create is a fundamental change in the signals that we give to the industrial community. For many, many years the signals were probably passive, and there were not an appropriate set of economic signals towards the industrial community. Now with this complementary set of complimentary programs we are restructuring the economic signals, so we can produce more, but produce more cleanly.”

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