The idea that those that causes environmental pollution should pay for the clean-up is not new. The polluter pays principle was embodied in the Principle 16 of the 1992 Rio Declaration. This declaration was agreed to by Ireland amongst a large number of other countries.
Principle 16 means, in a nutshell, that countries should use economic instruments (e.g. taxes) to ensure that the polluter bears the costs of the pollution with due regard to the public interest.
Why have I singled out Michael Noonan the Irish Minister for Finance? Because for the second year running Michael Noonan has rejected advice from his own department and from the Minister of Transport to increase excise duty on diesel.
Diesel was originally hailed as the solution to transport greenhouse gas emissions as the CO2 emissions are lower than for petrol engined vehicles. Governments in the 1990s across Europe promoted a switch to diesel as a cheap way to meet international obligations to reduce CO2 emissions. This switch was promoted by lower road taxes and lower fuel taxes to the extent that diesels now make up 70% of new car sales.
However, since then there has been an abundance of new evident on the detrimental health effects of diesel, especially the carcinogenic effects of PAH and respiratory disease caused by the fine particular matter and NOx. The ill health from diesel fumes imposes a large cost on society. The polluter pays principle argues that this cost should be borne by the polluter, i.e. those that drive diesel vehicles.
In the UK there is now acknowledgement that the then Labour government’s policy of promoting diesel was wrong. Shadow Minister for the Environment, Barry Gardiner MP, states that a mistake was made in the ‘dash for diesel’: ‘Hands up, can I say there’s absolutely no question that the decision we took was the wrong decision.’ It is notable that in the UK petrol and diesel are now the same price.
Because we now better understand the health effects of diesel it is time to stop the promotion. Increasing the tax on diesel to a higher level than petrol would help. And this money can then be used to finance respiratory services in hospitals.
Whilst it may not be politically expedition to equalise the tax straightaway, small changes over time will help signal that diesel is dirty and those that use diesel should pay society for the cost of diesel pollution.
Bob Sutcliffe is a director of Environmental Efficiency, a UK and Ireland wide environmental consultancy helping clients maintain environmental compliance and best practice. The views expressed are his personal views.