Taxing pollution not people

29 October 2009 at 5:04 pm Leave a comment


Andrew Curry writes:

I was fortunate enough to be invited earlier this week to the launch of the UK Green Fiscal Commission‘s report in London, on shifting to taxes  on pollution – and in particular on carbon emissions – while reducing at the same time taxes on people (income tax and national insurance). The Commission proposed a substantial shift, increasing ‘environmental’ taxes from 5% to 20% of the tax base over 10 years, although the overall effect would be neutral in terms of total government revenues.

The report‘s been two years in the making, directed by the environmental economist Paul Ekins, and had the support of some heavyweight commissioners, including Lord Turner, who spoke at the launch. Our former colleague Michelle Harrison, now at TNS-BMRB, was a member.

The conclusions can be spelt out in a few lines. Environmental taxes are effective in changing behaviour, and efficient to administer. They create jobs (around half a million to 2020) at only a fractional cost to economic growth, and they are also, almost certainly, essential if we are to have a hope of meeting the tough carbon reduction targets in the Climate Change Act.

Size – or at least scale – matters. In his comments Lord Turner argued that only “a radical change” would work, both because it meant that people would be able to see the reductions in their income tax bills, and so that there were sufficient long-term incentives for people and businesses to think it worth changing their behaviour and purchase decisions.

The technicalities of such taxes are fairly well understood. Their implementation is more about political will (which is why the panel also included a cross-party array of politicians). So I was also struck by the public opinion data (polling by BMRB), which was largely in line with our research into environmental and ethical attitudes, but was more positive than some would expect. 51% were in support of “green taxes”, and 32% against, but these percentages changed sharply, to 77% in favour and only 9% against, when people were asked about “green taxes” which were offset by other tax reductions.

But some deliberative research, also carried out by BMRB, identified some of the barriers. People were more likely to advocate environmental taxes if they believed that climate change will effect them personally, and there are still significant levels of scepticism in the UK. There was, unsurprisingly, little faith that overall tax bills would not increase – even before the current ‘race to the bottom’ on tax and public expenditure. And although neutrality should mean that there are likely to be as many winners as losers, most people – with an ingrained sense of pessimism about paying tax – thought they would be worse off personally after the tax shift. But fairness also mattered.

The politics of tax are notoriously difficult: “winners nod, while losers scream”. And from the window tax onwards, tax changes are littered with unintended consequences. The Treasury is generally sceptical about them. But if there is an opportunity, it is in the early days of a new government. And all of the politicians on the panel were optimistic that a new Chancellor of the Exchequer of their particular stripe would be keen on the idea – despite the risks. We’ll find out next year.

The picture is from Flickr user JustUptown, and is used under a Creative Commons licence with thanks.

Entry filed under: economics, sustainability. Tags: , , .

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