Contradictory policies – buying votes vs. saving the climate

The Austrian government plans to increase the subsidies for commuters. People who live at least 2 km away from their working place have, in principle, the possibility to obtain a tax discount on their fuel expenses.

The current level of subsidies is shown in the following table:

Distance           EUR/year

2-20 km           373

<40 km             1476

<60 km             2568

>60 km             3672

For the sake of completeness we have to say that the above-mentioned subsidy level applies only if there is a) no means of public transport available, or b) using public transport would lead to an extensive traveling time.

Let us examine the case of a commuter living 60 km from his/her place of work. He travels 5 days a week, the car consumes about 6 l/100 km and the current price of gasoline is about 1.50 EUR. The total gasoline expenses will therefore be around 2400 EUR per year. The expected tax benefit compensates his entire travel costs.

In case the commuter has the option of using a different means of transport the subsidy levels are somewhat lower as shown in the table below:

Distance          EUR/year

20-40 km        696

<60 km             1356

>60 km             2016

This is the current state of affairs. The government is now to increase the subsidy by 1 EUR per km. Thus, the tax benefit for our example will climb up to 2628 EUR, making it even more profitable to use the car for going to work.

Critics say that this move by the two governing parties is due to the upcoming elections later this year. There may be some truth in it, as it is common practice to distribute benefits during the electoral period. In that context it may be worthwhile to mention that Austria has about 1 million commuters. This is a non-negligible part of the electorate given that the total population is about 8 million.

There is, however, one more striking issue which should not be overlooked. Austria has committed herself to strict carbon emission targets. Now the policy of making car use even more beneficial is in stark contrast to these environmental goals which are never missing in public statements by the very same politicians.

These subsidies which have a long-time tradition are supposed to compensate people for their extra expenses for going to work at a distant location. It goes without saying that, over the time, commuters have got used to this kind of state subsidy. Nevertheless, there is no real justification for this sort of tax benefit. People always have to choose between options. And the alternative to commuting is moving to a location which is closer to the place of work. In an ideal world the higher cost of living in a city would more or less be equivalent to extra expenses for travelling to and from the job.

Now as the subsidies come into play the choice between living in the city or in the countryside is distorted by the simple fact that people who do not have to commute have to pay higher taxes in order to compensate for the cost of traveling of the commuters.

This is not only a waste of public money, it also creates more traffic, thus more energy consumption, more carbon emissions, more accidents etc.  And it reveals the true priorities of the political class.

Should Business Trips of Researchers Be Compensated for Their Climate Impact?

There is no doubt that business traveling contributes significantly to Co2 emissions. One of the largest groups of business travelers are researchers. In the following we will examine their contribution to carbon emissions in more detail and give an estimate how those emissions might be compensated.

According to Eurostat there are more than 2 million researchers in Europe. The vast majority of them are actively traveling to conferences, meetings etc, some of them very actively, making 10 or more trips a year. The most significant climate impact is to be expected by air travel. Staying on the conservative side, we estimate that each researcher is traveling by plane at least once a year for propfessional purposes. Thus, we have a minimum of 2 million business trips per year. That is a substantial number which, in turn, generates a huge amount of carbon emissions.

Currently, there is a discussion among several European countries to charge all airline travelers in order to compensate for the climate impact of flying. And indeed, there is widespread agreement in Europe as far as this topic is concerned.

However, it is a bit bizarre that, to my knowledge, most of the countries are not willing to set a good example by compensating the business trips of their employees with carbon charges. Since the vast majority of researchers are working in the public sector, there should be no problem to automatically compensate for their climate impact.

How much CO2 is emitted by those travels? Let us take the distance Berlin – Lisbon as a reference. Of course, many research trips will go over much longer distances (e.g. to US, Japan, etc.) , but some will also be shorter. During a round trip Berlin – Lisbon each passenger emits about half a ton of CO2. The corresponding carbon compensation cost would amount to some EUR 10.0 (USD 15.0). Once again we stay on the conservative side with our estimate.

Thus for some 2 million business trips per year the respective compensation cost would be of the order of EUR 20 million (USD 30  million). This is a very tiny amount compared to the total financial expenditure for research which in 2010 was more then EUR 245 billion. Thus carbon compensation of business flights of researchers would correspond to a mere 0.008 % of research expenditure.

We may conclude that compensating carbon emissions by research staff would come at a relatively low cost while at the same time setting a good example in order to promote climate policies.