Americans have grown accustomed to "sin" taxes, levies on products such as whiskey and cigarettes that society presumably would be better off without. Now a growing number of environmentalists and policy-makers are trying to apply similar logic to another societal blight, pollution.
In its annual "State of the World" report on global environmental trends released last week, the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute argues for the imposition of "green" taxes aimed at curbing industrial practices that pollute the air and degrade natural resources.
The authors contend that green taxes play to the inherent strengths of the marketplace by rewarding companies and consumers for changing their practices to lower their tax bills.
Several European countries and the United States already impose some taxes aimed at curbing pollution, and taxes aimed at emissions of carbon are expected to play a major role in any international strategy to combat global warming.
"Taxing products and activities that pollute, deplete or otherwise degrade natural systems is a way of ensuring that environmental costs are taken into account in private decisions -- whether to commute by car or bicyle, for example, or to generate electricity from coal or sunlight," according to the report.
Needless to say, the large-scale restructuring of the nation's tax system envisioned by the authors faces some formidable obstacles. Many politicians, for example, bridle at the suggestion of any new taxes, no matter how worthy the cause. There also are practical considerations; taxing smokestack emissions, for example, would require precise monitoring capabilities that go well beyond current standards, according to a congressional tax expert.
Nor is Congress likely to go along with new pollution taxes that saddle U.S. companies with a burden not shared by their international competitors. "If you try to do these things unilaterally, your domestic industry could be at a disadvantage," says the tax expert.
But Worldwatch suggests these obstacles can be overcome. The authors make clear, for example, that they are not arguing for an increase in the overall tax burden. Instead, they suggest that new costs borne by consumers -- such as higher prices for home heating oil -- could be offset by lowering income tax rates.
Similarly, they suggest that environmental taxes could be imposed in the context of international agreements that share economic burdens equally between countries. One potential model is the 1987 treaty, known as the Montreal protocol, placing curbs on chemicals that destroy the ozone layer. As part of its plan to implement the phase-out, Congress subsequently imposed taxes on the chemicals, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
Some of the chemicals cause more harm than others, so Congress assessed the taxes according to their relative effects. The refrigerant Freon, for example, is taxed at a rate of $1.37 a pound, while its more destructive cousin, the fire-suppressant Halon 2402, ultimately will be taxed at 10 times that rate.
The Worldwatch report notes that many countries already have imposed environmental taxes. The report identified "more than 50 environmental charges, including levies on air and water pollution, waste, and noise, as well as various product charges, such as fees on fertilizers and batteries."
The report notes, however, that "in most cases . . . these fees have been set too low to motivate major changes in behavior, and have been used instead to raise a modest amount of revenue for an environmental program or other specific purpose." One exception was in Britain, where higher taxes on leaded gasoline, a major source of lead contamination in the air, prompted large numbers of drivers to switch to cheaper unleaded fuel.
Proposals for carbon taxes routinely surface among environmentalists in this country. But concerns about global warming could add new impetus. A number of European countries have expressed support for a common European tax on carbon dioxide emissions, which are created by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil.
A 1990 report by the Congressional Budget Office, cited in the Worldwatch study, found that a $110-per-ton carbon tax would lower U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide by 37 percent, "while the nation's energy efficiency would improve by 23 percent."
The CBO also predicted that the carbon tax would lower the U.S. gross national product by $45 billion in the year 2000, a drop of about .6 percent. But the Worldwatch report suggests the loss "could likely be avoided by pairing the carbon tax with reductions in income or other taxes."