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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Beijing's New Polluter Pays Car Tax - Good Idea?

Tax systems get used for a lot more than raising revenue for the government. They are also often used to help change behavior and to make prices reflect costs of "negative externalities." If you want to discourage something, raise the tax on it. If you want to encourage something, lower the tax or offer a special deduction or tax credit.

One activity we want to discourage today is greenhouse gas emissions, such as CO2 from burning fossil fuels - like the gas in your car. So, despite some elected officials calling for ways to lower the cost of gasoline, we should really be looking to increase the cost because:
  • The higher cost will encourage people to drive less or find other ways to use less gasoline.
  • What we pay for gas at the pump is not the true cost. When we drive and burn gasoline, we cause air pollution, create GHG emissions that contribute to global warming, wear out roads, and cause congestion. These activities have costs - such as cleaning the air or refurbishing roads.
  • When that cost is not included in the price we pay, the government doesn't get the money needed to deal with the problems - the negative externalities of driving.

Beijing seems to have the idea right. It was reported in several news outlets that on August 13, Beijing announced that there would be a much higher sales tax on large cars and a lower tax on smaller cars (see

The US has something similar with the gas guzzler tax enacted in 1978. However, that only applies to new cars so trucks and some heavy SUVs are not covered. You can find a list of covered vehicles from the EPA (here).

A flaw with both approaches is that the tax is only assessed at time of purchase. This doesn't do a good job of tying the tax to the cost of the negative externalities or help modify behavior. Once you've paid the gas guzzler tax, on the purchase of a $350,000 Lamborghini Murcielago, are you going to care how much you drive it every year? On the purchase of an expensive gas guzzling car, is someone even going to notice the up to $7,700 gas guzzler tax tacked onto the price tag? Will it cause someone to not buy the car? Of course, the gas guzzler tax also applies to some less expensive cars and it does seem to have caused carmakers to avoid mass producing cars that are subject to the tax.

Even if you buy the gas guzzler and keep it in your garage without driving it, you owe the tax.
A solution to better encourage less driving of gas guzzlers and discouraging their purchase (and manufacture) would be to have an annual tax on their ownership in addition to a higher gasoline excise tax.

The funds generated from a gas tax increase could be used for environmental research and clean-up, education on how to help the environment, and to provide relief to low-income taxpayers, as well as to some hard hit industries which they retool to use less gasoline. The use of a polluter pays tax to reduce another tax is called a "tax shift."

Another stick to help discourage production of gas guzzlers would be to deny companies the manfucturing deduction for them (IRC Sectoin 199) or impose an excise tax on some part used in these cars.

As federal and some state governments start serious work on reforming their tax systems to make them work better in supporting economic, societal and environmental goals, polluter pays taxes and tax shifts need to be part of that discussion.

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