Study advocates ecological tax shifts

February 09, 2006, vol. 35, no. 3
By Marianne Meadahl

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A team of SFU geography students has found that by giving residents a tax break, the City of Vancouver can encourage environmentally sound practices and still increase revenue.

The students examined how shifting taxes in accordance with residents' responses to ecological factors might work in the city's proposed sustainability precinct (including southeast False Creek and False Creek flats), an area that a consortium of researchers hope will showcase sustainability efforts.

Ecological tax shifting involves the application of new or higher taxes or charges on actions the city wants to discourage, while simultaneously reducing them on behaviour that the city wants to encourage. The students found the total revenue to the city could increase by more than $20 million.

The students compared the impact of ecological tax shifting in several areas where Vancouver has authority to set tax rates: solid and liquid waste, parking, water and sewage, and carbon dioxide emissions.

In terms of solid waste, they recommended implementing fees based on quantity used rather than flat rates. They also looked at the impact of reducing car use through limiting parking and lowering carbon dioxide emissions by placing a tax on fuels relative to their carbon content.

Extra revenues generated by the taxes could then be used to facilitate and encourage use of public transit, the adoption of lower carbon content fuel technologies, the implementation of green roofs and permeable surfaces and an increase in things like composting and recycling.

“The sustainability precinct is a great idea, and there is plenty of scope for Vancouver to implement many of the environmentally and socially beneficial initiatives that we suggested,” notes Mathew Dickson, a graduate student in the school of resource and environmental management. “Not only is environmental tax shifting the best policy option from a financial, environmental and equitable standpoint, it would enable Vancouver to put itself on the global map with regards to forward-thinking environmental initiatives.”
The students undertook their study with Mark Roseland, director of SFU's centre for sustainable community development.

While their end-of-semester presentation drew a low attendance due to snow on Burnaby Mountain, several students took up an invitation from City of Vancouver staff to present their findings to officials at city hall on Jan.6.

“We hope this will add to the growing realization among many sustainability groups that taxes are a tool that can be used to help improve urban sustainability in an effective and cost efficient manner,” adds Dickson.

The students will continue to have an interest in the progress of the sustainability precinct.

It is being developed by the City of Vancouver in conjunction with the centre for interactive research in sustainability (CIRS), a project involving researchers from UBC, SFU, BCIT, and Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, who are creating a state of the art green building at the edge of the Great Northern Way campus.

The proposed precinct would highlight sustainability by, for example, creating a municipal energy utility and an energy-efficient district heating system for the area.

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