When I hear that the Government is considering ‘demand management measures’ against motorists as a climate change mitigation measure I cannot help but be cynical.
Yesterday saw the launch of a consultation document by the Department of Transport as part of its preparation for setting out a ‘low-carbon roadmap’ for the transport sector.
Even the language used sets the tone of the debate. To state, for example, that Ireland has one of the highest rates of car usage in Europe immediately implies that it is cars that are the problem. It would be far more accurate to state that Ireland has one of the worst rates of public transport provision in Europe, but that is not what you hear.
Instead, the picture painted is of a country that is selfishly determined to use cars no matter what the consequence. Junior Transport Minister Alan Kelly was quoted last week referring to ‘middle-class snobbery’ keeping people off buses.
This is simply not true. Where good-quality public transport is provided people do not need to be forced to use it. In Dublin, the DART, Luas and the better quality bus corridors are used and appreciated. The problem is that there is not enough of them.
Ireland’s motorists are entitled to be deeply suspicious of anything that emanates from our Government purporting to be an environmental measure. Far too often this has nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with tax collection.
As an example, we currently have ‘carbon tax’ applied to road fuels. This is basically identical to, and charged on top of, excise duty. But, of course, it is far more politically palatable to include carbon in the title. It is a bit like putting a ‘world peace tax’ on top of PAYE on the grounds that no one can be against world peace.
I do not dispute the reality nor the seriousness of man-made climate change. However, I do object to motorists being fashionably demonised as if they were the main problem when in fact they are the biggest victims.
In our cities, and certainly in rural areas, people drive because they have no choice. It is simply not feasible to get around using public transport.
During rush hour in our cities every bus and train that we have is stuffed full and yet they still only cater for a small percentage of commuters. The majority have to drive if they want to work.
Adding extra taxes and tolls is just a dead-weight tax on movement. Of themselves these measures increase the cost of living but they do not provide choice. This is a basic fact of life that our policymakers would do well to remember: you can’t force people to change to an alternative that does not exist.
There are positive measures that can be taken and should be supported. The free bikes scheme in Dublin, for example, is very successful. Investment in the Luas, buses and bicycle lanes have always been supported by the AA.
There are real challenges for Ireland both in terms of the need to reduce oil use and in making the best use of our transport system. We are inefficient and there is no doubt that public transport doesn’t serve the public well enough.
It is also important to recognise how much progress the car has made in recent years.
Driven by EU laws, car makers have reduced the amount of fuel used and CO2 emitted enormously. It is now a much smaller component of our overall carbon footprint and is diminishing year on year.
We have seen that change in Ireland. The basis for car taxation was switched from engine size to CO2 emissions in 2008. Even though the recession has caused a huge drop in overall car sales in the years since, it is still clear that the policy worked in spades. The problem for the Government is not that the car is not making progress — it is that is succeeding too well. Technological improvements are running ahead of the Government’s desire to keep extracting tax from us.
In 2007, less than 4pc of new cars were in tax band A. Last year that was over 40pc, and over 90pc of cars were either in band A or band B. This has meant a massive improvement in emissions from the private car, as opposed the transport sector generally.
It has also meant a huge fall in revenue for the State. In 2007 it made about €1.4bn in Vehicle Registration Tax; this year it will be lucky to get €400m.
Small wonder that it convenient for the Government to describe the car as if it was some sort of environmental ogre. The more you blame the car the more justification you have for taxing it.