Lester Brown on Environmental Taxes

April 15th is coming up quickly. SustainableBusiness.com uses the approach of one of our least favorite days in the US (which we should perhaps call “the Ides of April”) to raise the issue of environmental taxes with an essay (adapted from Plan B 2.0) by that environmental man of renown, Lester Brown. Brown’s not only one of the best thinkers alive on environmental issues, but he’s also a hell of a writer, and in two pages he demonstrates aptly why a shift to environmental taxes makes so much sense:

As Americans are filing their income taxes, many of their counterparts in several European countries are benefiting from a steady decline in income taxes as governments lower taxes on income and raise taxes on environmentally destructive activities – like burning gasoline or coal. The purpose of this tax shifting is to incorporate the environmental costs of products and services into the market price to help the market tell the environment truth. This rewards environmentally responsible behavior such as reducing energy use.

Among the various environmentally damaging activities taxed in Europe are coal burning, gasoline use, the generation of garbage (so-called landfill taxes), the discharge of toxic waste, and the excessive number of cars entering cities. Germany and Sweden are the leaders among the countries in Western Europe that are shifting taxes in a process known there as environmental tax reform. A four-year plan adopted in Germany in 1999 systematically shifted taxes from labor to energy. By 2001, this plan had lowered fuel use by 5 percent. It had also accelerated growth in the renewable energy sector, creating some 45,400 jobs by 2003 in the wind industry alone, a number that is projected to rise to 103,000 by 2010.

More jobs, lower labor costs, and environmental benefits: what’s not to like? Obviously, these kinds of taxes would have to be introduced over time, and in a manner to soften the blow of shifting from an income to a consumption tax. Beyond that, though, it’s really hard to understand why no one’s pushing these hard in the US. In fact, these kinds of taxes seem like they’d appeal to both sides of the political spectrum. In fact, I’d imagine the only folks who wouldn’t like them would be the oil & gas industry, the automakers, the chemical producers, the agribusinesses… wait a minute… OK, now I see why we’re not hearing anything…

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