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Do Green Taxes Work?

By LayStar Magazine
6th September, 2009

The price of petrol has broken the £1 per litre threshold, as did diesel a short while before it. This latest increase is due to UK government taxation, which is said to be a tax levied to combat global warming. Will this ‘green tax’ be effective?

The Scientific Argument

One fact that most people agree is that just about all modern transport runs on fossil fuels, but it isn’t a never-ending supply.

  What seemingly cannot be agreed is whether the global warming issue is actually being caused by man-made carbon dioxide emissions. Scientists appear to be throwing in their two penneth worth from both sides of the argument, but for us ordinary folk, whom do we believe? For example, a Google search returns a document that suggests that vehicles contribute as much as a quarter of all US generated greenhouse gases (http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_vehicles/vehicles_health/cars-and-trucks-and-global-warming.html). Another suggests that 96.5% of carbon dioxide emissions come from natural sources and, of the 3.5% that humans are responsible for, cars contribute 0.6% to that figure (http://www.abd.org.uk/green_myths.htm).

  The effects of the industrial revolution and the volume of fossil fuel-burning technologies over the past two hundred years have not done our world a great deal of good, relative to the millions of years of ‘all things natural’. However, we know that there were ice ages and then the climate changed to temperate ages. Geologists know, for example, that there was once flowing water in the area of the Sphinx in Egypt and other long dried up, arid areas of our world. So we are in a constant state of change, albeit over thousands of years. 

  Can we really take a view that the recent adverse weather conditions experienced in the last few years are due to global warming? Many respected scientists and geologists have stated it so. Shouldn’t we be looking at trends over a much longer period, perhaps hundreds to thousands of years? If we do then we must be mindful that the fuel-burning world, including coal, has only been in prevalence since the 18th century. Prior to this, there were just wood-burning fires contributing to the man-made carbon dioxide emissions, but for a significantly smaller population.

  Many scientists have visited the North Pole to witness the ice melting. They talk of world disaster if the ice should continue melting because see levels will rise and permanently flood islands and coastal areas. There is much debate on this assertion. Many argue that sea levels will not alter, or perhaps will fall, because icebergs are displaced by water that enables them to float. When they melt their mass is replaced by water and there is no change in water levels. However, a counter argument (http://www.physorg.com/news5619.html) first reminds us that a great deal of ice slips into the sea from landmasses - it isn’t an iceberg in the first place. In addition, that salt-water properties being different from fresh water’s, do in fact increase levels when the freshwater ice melts in sea-water. 

  Even if we are concerned about rising sea levels, no-one can say for sure if melting ice has anything to do with our carbon emissions. If we all stop using modern transport; bikes, cars, trains, planes and ships, what would be the net difference in the North Pole? Would the seas start to freeze up again and water levels start to reduce? No-one can tell us the answer. We could be experiencing a natural warming era that has been changing for hundreds of years.

A Moral Argument

Despite the arguments and counter-arguments, we can hypothesise or even generalise that a significant reduction in carbon output would probably do more good than harm. Therefore, perhaps we should act in a more responsible way. A moral responsibility is probably the strongest of all the arguments – it’s simple and we understand it. We need to decrease our carbon emissions because that is a sensible and responsible thing to do.

The Tax Argument

Is it just transport that is contributing to carbon emissions? Most agree that electricity production generates more man-made carbon output than anything else. Transport is merely a small proportion of the overall man-made carbon footprint. In addition, of all the modes of transport there are, our government appears to be targeting only cars and aircraft with heavy ‘green taxes’.

  Petrol and diesel is heavily taxed in the UK – as much as 300% of its base cost. How does increased taxation help to fight global warming? Also, given that the taxation level rises year-on-year, what is the optimum level of taxation to be? Is it 300%, 600% or even 1000%? If the agenda is to significantly reduce the number of cars bought and used on our roads then extremely high taxation might work. If, on the other hand, we start to consider the implications of that last statement, how much of our economy would be severely damaged if there were much fewer cars? The money that we pay for our cars, petrol, parking fees, toll fees and car taxes all feed a very strong economy for Britain. High taxation is a short-term strategy to eventual economic catastrophe for any government.

  There is now a green campaign to recycle, fuelling a strong argument to make older cars last longer rather than throwing them away and buying new. Abandoning our cars because we can no longer afford them poses another green issue.

  If the tax levied on fuel was used to fund new technologies to combat our carbon footprint, then this would surely be a worthy cost to the motorist. It would be a sensible and responsible cost. Are we being too naïve? Many of us might suspect the contrary – that the tax is being used to support things that we wouldn’t ordinarily support. After all, we don’t see significant improvements in such things as public transport, which if it met the demand of public needs, has the ability to significantly reduce our reliance on private vehicles.

The Private Vehicle Argument

Owning a vehicle is a right, not a privilege. We all have the right to travel from one place to another without having to rely upon publicly provided services. There are, for example, areas of the Britain where public services either don’t operate or are too few and far between. But we have to pay for the right. The benefits of owning transport are likely to outweigh its costs for any individual or family.

  What about a second vehicle? A second car for many families has become a necessary requirement. Think back only 30 – 40 years ago when it was the norm for mum to be at home with the kids while dad was out to work. Today, mum and dad need to work and both of them need transport.

  Over the same time-span, overall, public transport has actually reduced instead of increasing to cope with the increased need. In London and other major cities and heavily populated areas, the services may well be satisfactory. For everywhere else there are fewer trains and buses, which are now in the private sector rather than the public, not-for-profit sector that they once were. This means that routes and schedules have to be profitable rather than just viable from public demand. Also, few companies invest in increasing services based on the speculative possibility that, if the service is seen to be there when most people want it, many people will start to use it. Ask people why they don’t use public transport and most say that there isn’t any when they need it, amongst other reasons on the inconvenience theme. The benefits for a second car outweigh its costs. 

  If the government continue to increase tax levels, for many people, whether they own one or more vehicles, there will come a point where the costs are too great and private transport will become unaffordable. The benefits will not diminish in any way unless public transport can plug some of the gaps. Given that there is no visible evidence of the ‘green tax’ being used to increase services, what are people to do? 

Alternative Fuels Argument

Will the vehicle manufacturers continue producing fossil-fuel-based engines to the point that our government makes them unaffordable? Innovative organisations, like Honda, have a stream of ideas flowing into the patents offices for new engine designs. Such engines may run on alternative fuels or electric or a combination of the both. We are seeing these new technologies on our streets already.

  The problem with the innovation thus far is that there is seemingly a negative aspect to every positive aspect the manufacturers bring about. For example, a car that runs on electricity has no carbon emissions, but the electricity has to be produced, which doesn’t decrease the carbon footprint issue. Cars that run on new bio-fuels, just like the Model T Ford originally did, need an enormous amount of crop growing land to produce the demand. So much so, forests are being flattened to provide arable land in some areas of the world, which has a major negative impact. These cars aren’t as green as the manufacturers would have us believe.

  So it would seem that there is no viable alternative to private transport, save for buying smaller vehicles that drink less fuel. The manufacturers are putting significant effort into fuel-efficient engines. The downside though, is that buying small isn’t strategically viable. Over the short-term, the depreciation on a new vehicle is likely to cost more than the lesser running costs. Over the longer term, our population is ever-increasing so we will end up with a larger population of small cars – still polluting the air. There is no overall and significant reduction in carbon.

The Public Transport Argument

If the government genuinely want to make an impact on transport carbon emissions then the only real solution has to be huge investment in public transport. There has to be new railway lines with enhanced train services with free car parking for those that are not serviced by buses. All towns and villages in the UK must be served by regular bus and other public transport services. People should not have to wait for any longer than half an hour for services at peak times.

  There should also be a better range of services – more innovation. For example, is it really necessary to have heavy rolling stock on the rail network? Could a bus be adapted to run on the road and rail network? Actually, this was invented a while back. However having more rail tracks may enable such innovation and allow a much lighter, less costly type of train that is designed to run frequently and efficiently – like a tram or monorail.

  We should also encourage the use of bicycles. Trains with a ride on/off bicycle carriage would allow people to travel further with their bikes. This offers a great deal more flexibility where commuters, for example, have to either wait for a bus or use their car to get to a rail station.

  Other innovations may include more use of our waterways. There are countless towns and villages built up on river and canal banks throughout the UK. Many of these waterways are navigable by watercraft, which could offer a viable public transport service. Some areas of the UK are already building on this theme.

  Above all, public transport must be cost-appealing. The cost of getting to and fro work and leisure locations must be significantly less costly than for running a car, with only marginally less perceived inconvenience. A good working example is the Reading Thames Valley bus service. It operates a free service between Reading station and the Thames Valley industrial estate, whose firms fund this regular and well-used service.

  We are mostly arguing the need of public transport to offer a viable alternative to provide our daily routines, like getting to work. This should make the cost of running a second car less attractive. However, families shouldn’t be penalised for having one car that enables them to travel to travel for leisure.

The loosing Argument

Most people would be supportive of a government that puts ‘green taxes’ into transport systems that are seen to work effectively and efficiently. Until we get such a government, we can continue feeling ripped off and cheated for having to pay a tax that is no more green than its morals are cabbage looking.

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