A Free-Market Energy Blog

Taxing Fuels, Vehicles, and Passengers: EEA’s Vision of ‘Sustainable’ Transport

By -- February 10, 2009

Europe taxes gasoline at $3-4 a gallon, imposes the world’s most stringent fuel economy standards, and mandates the blending of biofuels into the region’s motor fuel supply. Yet European Union (EU) transport-sector greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increased by 26 percent from 1990 to 2006, according to “Beyond Transport Policy,” a recent European Environment Agency (EEA) report. Why have these policies failed to reduce GHG transport-sector emissions?

The EEA report spotlights the unheard-of fact that the “key drivers” of demand for transport services are “external” to the transport sector. So despite what you’ve been told, people don’t drive around just for the heck of it, buy airplane tickets for the sheer thrill of flying, ship products or order deliveries just to make work for truckers, sailors, and airmen. No, most people use transport vehicles to shop, work, educate their children, vacation, or supply products to customers. And—horrors—they do these things “without considering the consequences on transport demand and greenhouse gas emissions”!

What this implies, of course, is that we cannot have what the EEA calls a “sustainable transport system” until politicians and bureaucrats control those pesky “external drivers”—the other economic sectors that generate the demand for transport services.

The EEA report provides detailed case studies on how three external drivers—food production and consumption, short-haul air travel for business and leisure travel, and education—increase emissions by increasing the demand for transport. Each study reveals what every sober adult should already know. Work causes emissions. Play causes emissions. Wealth causes emissions. Trade causes emissions.

In short, life causes emissions, especially where people are prosperous and free to work and play.

Let’s begin with food. Do grapes cause global warming? According to the EEA, importing a kilogram of grapes from Chile to Austria emits 7,410.8 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2), compared to only 8.8 grams for grapes grown closer to home. So if you’re an Austrian and you eat Chilean grapes, your carbon foot print is 842 times bigger than if you eat locally-grown grapes. But Europeans like fresh produce, and they can afford to import it year-round. How decadent! Why can’t they live like their noble ancestors and eat canned fruit in the winter, or simply abstain?

To counter the fresh produce peril, the EEA calls for a labeling program alerting consumers to the transport-based carbon-intensity of the food they eat. However, that would hardly be enough to instill in Austrians, for example, an aversion to Chilean grapes, South African apples, Spanish strawberries, Dutch tomatoes, or Israeli peppers. The logical next step—which the EEA recommends—is to impose carbon taxes “to internalize the external costs of transport.” Such tariffs would also keep lots of developing country produce out of European markets. The EEA proposal is protectionism by another name.

The EEA also bemoans the vicious circle created by prosperity and air travel. As Europe becomes wealthier, more economically integrated, and more connected to the global economy, more Europeans want to fly for both business and pleasure. This has led to an expansion of aviation facilities and infrastructure, with airports functioning not only as transport hubs but also as retail centers, conference and meeting venues, and accommodation facilities. By making flying more convenient and useful, these developments further increase demand for air travel. When will the flying end!

To mitigate this dastardly trend (never mind that accelerating the movement of goods, persons, and ideas enhances wealth creation—the foundation of all environmental improvement), the EEA recommends new carbon-based aviation fuel taxes, passenger duties, and landing fees. Well, what else did you expect?

Education is the third and last “external driver” examined in the report. Here’s the gist. Millions of parents would rather drive their kids to safe, high-quality schools across town than make the children walk or bicycle to underperforming, bully-infested schools nearby. The EEA report offers several antidotes to this malady, including cycle lanes, car pooling, “walking buses,” car-free action days (or weeks), consumer information, and improvements in public transport. Well, I don’t know about you, but if my son can get beat up and have his lunch money stolen at a school with a “walking bus” program, then I’m definitely going to enroll him there rather than drive him to a good school a few miles further from home.

Although the report doesn’t specifically mention taxes in this context, it states that “revenues from a carbon-based tax can be used to cover costs of cycling and walking infrastructure,” and opines that “people may be more favorable if they are given adequate information about what would happen without the tax increase.” Sure they will! ‘Monsieur Blanc, please fork over an additional €1,000 in motor fuel taxes or the Greenland Ice Sheet will collapse.” That doesn’t sound like a winning sales pitch.

Here’s the bottom line the EEA doesn’t want to face. Until somebody mass produces electric vehicles or alternative fuels that outcompete combustion engines or petroleum-based fuels, transport-sector CO2 emissions will continue to increase along with demand for transport services.

Although transport demand comes from “external drivers” on which transport policies have had little impact, the EEA report tries but fails to go “beyond transport policy.” The EEA’s default solution to the alleged problem of too many people driving, flying, shipping, and importing is the most boringly familiar transport policy of all–increase taxes on fuels, goods, passengers, and vehicles.


  1. Tom Tanton  

    “In short, life causes emissions, especially where people are prosperous and free to work and play.” But life without freedom or prosperity causes even HIGHER emissions, Marlo; especially when measured on a per-capita lifetime basis.


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