Distributional effects of taxing transport fuel

Peer Reviewed
1 January 2012

This paper takes as its starting point the observation that fuel prices – and thus taxes – are important for good management of climate change and other environmental problems. To economists this should be no surprise yet it seems that the role of fuel taxation as an instrument of climate policy has not been fully appreciated. It is however one of the few policy instruments that, since several decades, has actually reduced fuel consumption appreciably.

Thanks to taxation (mainly in Europe and Japan), carbon emissions are considerably lower than they would have been otherwise. In future where carbon emissions are to be cut drastically, this instrument will be crucial. There is however much opposition to the instrument. This opposition uses various arguments, for instance that fuel taxes hurt the poor since they are strongly regressive. We however find that the choice of country and methodology turns out to be of great consequence. We study seven European countries—France, Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, Serbia, Spain and Sweden and do find some evidence of regressivity but the evidence is very weak. It does not apply when lifetime income is used and it does not apply to the poorest country in the group. The best one-line summary is probably that the tax is approximately proportional.

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Publication | 15 February 2012