Ungreen thoughts

Nov 19th, 2009 | By | Category: Ireland

A friend this morning flew to Europe for the weekend.  OK, the flight was to one of those airports which is not quite where it sounds, but it didn’t matter to her, she wanted to go to a neighbouring country anyway.  The return fare of €35 was less than the cost of taxi to the airport, and certainly less than the cost of a meal out at many Dublin restaurants.  A pair of tickets for the flights would have cost the same price as one ticket to see Ireland play rugby against Australia or South Africa.

Whatever the economics and ethics of low cost flying, it will take a considerable change to wean us off it.  A friend in the North, a train enthusiast, recently flew from Belfast to Cork for a meeting because it was the cheapest option, and took him a fraction of the time.  He regretted having to admit that letting the train take the strain was fine if you could afford the fares and had days to spare.

The Green response to the trend for people to fly with increasing frequency is to say that it must stop; they propose heavy carbon taxes to inhibit such activity.  But what would be the outcome of their policies?

My friend in the North, a self-employed man looking for business opportunities could not have made that meeting and would have missed out on the work; such flexible travel would only be available to those who could afford it, the big players in the market, the big companies.  The policy of taxing air travel beyond the pocket of ordinary people means that they are the ones who lose out.  Business becomes concentrated in the hands of those who can afford to be mobile.

And what about that flight to Frankfurt (which doesn’t really go to Frankfurt)? It’s to visit a family member; something that would be discouraged by Green policies.  Taxation would ensure only the rich could contemplate going to visit relatives working overseas.

The inescapable fact of indirect taxation, whether it’s VAT, customs and excise duties, or so-called ‘carbon taxes’, is that it is regressive; it takes no account of ability to pay so bears down most heavily on the poorer members of the community.

Cynics might observe that taxes introduced for allegedly ‘ethical’ reasons become very useful sources of incomes for profligate Governments.  The huge taxation of cigarettes has not significantly reduced the number of smokers, but has brought billions into the Department of Finance.  ‘Carbon taxes’ will probably follow a similar course, kept just low enough not to kill off the business while high enough to keep cash coming into the coffers.  If there were a desire to stop flying completely, then there would be quotas on the numbers of flights (and rationing always favours those who have cash in their pockets), rather than small, but significant, duties on each ticket.

A focus on reducing carbon emissions, while trying to avoid hurting the less wealthy, needs to be concentrated not upon taxes, but upon ensuring the efficiency of aircraft and airports.  But that would be too much for a philosophy based upon prescribing the lifestyles of others.

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  1. It’s going to happen anyway. The cost of oil is only going one direction, so we all better get used to flying a lot less (or winning the lotto). That’s just life. In fact the cost of oil in the future in going to have a fundamentally regressive impact on everything, unfortunately the base of Maslow’s triangle is going to get hit too, as food will inevitably increase in cost given the intense use of petrochemicals in it’s production and distribution. Arguably increasing tax generally will be the only way to provide some modicum of protection to the less well off in the west, but God help the 3rd world countries.

  2. Ah, so price rationing means that working people will pay the cost of environmental changes just as working people are paying for those who bankrupted the country to continue their extravagant lifestyles.

    Changes will bear down differently upon different areas of the developing world, places like Bangladesh face a bleak future, but in other places where there are sustainable farming methods, the decline of the West will leave them able to cope. Will Malthus be proved right, after all?

  3. I’m all for the use of sustainable farming methods, the issue is that the yields are typically lower, therefore the number of people we can feed now is more than we will be able to feed in the future. All human technological development merely forestalls the Malthusian eventuality, unless we get to the point where we can start populating other planets and consuming their resources. Speaking of which, must get the new Star-Trek flick out, haven’t seen it yet.

    Take heart, when we’re shagged, we are all shagged, regardless of wealth, though there will be an inequitable descent of the curve, but arguably those with less may actually suffer less as they have less invested in the status quo, the wealthy may find the changes too challenging to live with. Personally I plan to develop my rabbit hunting skills, especially after some added inspiration from the River Cottage last night.

  4. It is a pipe dream to expect major reductions in emissions from the airline industry while they use current aviation fuels – and at present there are no alternatives.

    If we are not to crucify God’s creation – and in the process humankind, ourselves, made in God’s image – we must urgently reduce emisions of greenhouse gases, of which those from aviation are a small but rapidly growing part. Carbon taxes are an alternative to crude rationing which would maintain some freedom of choice, and if used wisely the money raised, or part of it, can be applied to protect the poor and the vulnerable. But whichever way we cut it, we can no longer afford to be so profligate as we have become *within our lifetime* with fossil energy. And the more we use in the rich world – and we are still rich despite the destruction of wealth brought about by the crash – the more the effects of global warming will impoverish the poor world. It is a moral issue. We are meant surely to tend and care for God’s creation. Surely the Spirit is calling us to rediscover the old fashioned values of holy simplicity, modelled for us by Jesus. Let us live simply that others may simply live, and take personal responsibility for reducing our own carbon footprints.

    It is in fact a spiritual issue. Christians should be like salt and give a lead to our confused and fearful communities. A small start might be a public vigil in your parish to pray for a good result from the Copenhagen climate change summit in December. How about it?

  5. My concern is that ‘Green’ choices are being imposed upon the less wealthy by the powerful in the name of an agenda which the powerful themselves are not embracing.

    There is no reason why carbon taxes need be levied in a regressive way, though, unless one is a Green politician concerned about not alienating one’s middle electoral base. A 10% levy on the ticket price would be considerably fairer than flat rate charges on tickets.

    We had a Day of Prayer for our Nation in our church back in March, which included a focus on our use of God’s Earth.

  6. Please forgive me, Ian, for my rant. And I’m glad to hear of your day of prayer last March.
    God bless

  7. Rants are good! The Old Testament prophets specialized in vigorous denunciations.

    The Church of Ireland’s great weakness is that there is not a single person on the bench who does not weigh and measure every word.

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