Sleeper trains and polluter pays

Upperdeck_interiors_in_Finland_sleeper_train_20170201Discourage flying by taxing carbon emissions, or by promoting alternatives like sleeper trains for long trips within Europe? Answer: both. They are like two hands, one washing the other, doing one alone is bound to disappoint.

Could sleeper trains replace international air travel? asks Enrica Papa (The Conversation, 20/01/2020). And although she describes inspiring cases and some evidence that flight shame is driving a small revival to sleeper trains, what she shows ultimately is a bleak picture overall – there are far fewer sleeper trains in Europe than there were a decade ago, and most air travellers won’t make that switch.

What about cutting air travel with a polluter-pays tax on aviation fuel? I’m all for it. What needs to be understood, though, is that the availability of less-polluting alternatives (like sleeper trains) makes the pollution tax more effective in cutting pollution, and can also make the impact of the tax much fairer as well.

The point of a pollution tax is to cut pollution, by making it expensive to pollute. But, if you think you need to make a trip and there’s no good alternative to flying, the tax just means you pay more; if there’s a reasonable, less polluting alternative – a sleeper train, say, that costs less than the flight – you can pay less and pollute less, and the same level of tax becomes more effective at cutting pollution. The same principle applies to taxes on fuel for cars: if there is good bus service and there are safe ways to get around by bicycle, a fuel tax can do a lot to cut pollution; if there are no good alternatives to driving, a tax on fuel has a much smaller effect on pollution, and costs people more money.

One problem with pollution taxes is that they often appear regressive – as a percentage of income, they fall more heavily on poor people than on rich ones. Whether they are regressive in the end, however, depends on how the tax revenue is spent: if the spending leans heavily towards things that benefit those with lower incomes, these taxes can be quite progressive. This is nowhere more clearly illustrated than with cases where the tax revenue is spent on providing lower cost and less polluting substitutes: sleeper trains from a tax on aviation fuel, bus service and bike paths from a tax on motor fuel.

To put that all in technical terms: a tax on pollution is more effective, and consumers pay less, if the price elasticity of demand for pollution is high; elasticity of demand for pollution will be high when there are good, less polluting substitutes available.

23 January 2020

Even soft Brexit gives the oil oligarchs what they want

Putin – whose name I use here as shorthand for the entire oligarchy of not just Russia but all major fossil fuel exporters – wants to prevent the emergence of international institutions which would be able to bring climate change under control. That is because the control of climate change would require destroying the oil and gas business, and with it his wealth and power.

To this end, two of the central objectives of the oil oligarchs have been the installation of a US government which is hostile to international cooperation in general and cooperation on climate in particular; and the fragmentation of the European Union. Trump, and Brexit; more broadly, a science-denying Republican party, and resurgent nationalism in every European country and region.

Even soft Brexit will be enough for Putin

I will explain below why these two political objectives, in the US and in the EU, are necessary – and, unfortunately, probably sufficient – for Putin’s ends. But first let me just say that, for Putin’s purposes, any Brexit will do, Hard, No Deal … or the softest of soft, as long as Britain withdraws from the political institutions of the EU. Continue reading

Derangement and collective action in Amitav Ghosh and Marilynne Robinson

How many books have I read, and then forgotten? Writing things down may help.

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Trump, Putin, CO2 and EU, redux

Open Democracy has just published a my piece on Trump, Putin, climate change and the EU (the connection is perhaps not blindingly obvious – I hope that list of items has piqued your curiosity. You can read more here). Continue reading

Trump & Putin would break EU to block climate action

The Trump-Putin connection can seem just a lurid sideshow in Trump’s horrific circus of racial and religious profiling, misogyny and authoritarianism. And, when that special relationship does catch our attention, the most obvious thing linking the two men (possible videos and blackmail aside) is their common political language of aggressive nationalism.

But this is no sideshow, and much as Trump would like it to be all about him, it is not his personal foible: the agendas of the Republican Party’s petro-backers coincide perfectly with those of the Russian oligarchy, and that is why Trump’s links to Russia were tolerated even before he was elected. The nationalist postures of Trump and Putin, which might seem to be simply ways of rallying some segments of the aggrieved masses to the banners of the countries’ respective caudillos, are instrumental for reshaping the international order in a way favourable to the oil interests.

The overriding need of the oil interests is to block anything that would cut the demand for oil – which is to say, to stymie any serious steps to mitigate climate change. International cooperation is necessary to fight climate change, and aggrieved nationalism undermines international cooperation. The cohesion of the EU is particularly important for international action on climate, and so European integration has become the enemy not only of Moscow, but also of Republican Washington.

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