The Post, Zambia, February 02, 2010

The government’s introduction of the carbon emission tax has proved to be a very sensitive issue to most Zambian motorists. Since the introduction of the Carbon Emission Surtax by the government this year, there have been more questions raised by concerned motorists and vehicle owners over the tax than answers given.

The carbon tax is an environmental tax on emissions of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is considered to be a heat trapping ‘greenhouse gas’ and the purpose of the carbon tax is to protect the environment by penalising emissions of carbon dioxide, which may cause global warming.

Carbon atoms are present in every fossil fuel – coal, petroleum and natural gas – and are released as CO2 when they are burnt.

Scientific consensus holds that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are the primary cause of global warming. Carbon dioxide is a major greenhouse gas and as such it is considered an air pollutant.

Worldwide, 27 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide are produced by human activity annually and two governmental mechanisms are being considered or implemented to reduce this amount: environmental taxes of which the carbon tax is one and capping emissions.

Whilst the motive behind such a tax can be appreciated, most Zambians have been skeptical over the government’s motive, especially that next year is an election year and there is need for money.

Former minister of tourism and environment William Harrington wondered which programmes government would implement to utilise these funds.

With a private motor vehicle population of 307,000 as at December 2009 Zambia Transport Information System – ZAMTIS, the Zambian government is expected to rake in a handsome K30.7 billion plus as revenue from the Carbon Emission Surtax this year.

“Government has not clearly outlined the programmes which it is going to implement to help mitigate the effects of global warming, the reason why such a tax was being collected in the first place. A carbon tax should be revenue neutral. Revenue neutral means that the little if any of the tax revenues raised by taxing carbon emissions would be retained by government and the vast majority of the revenues would be returned to the public, with perhaps, a very small amount utilised to mitigate the otherwise negative impacts of carbon taxes on low-income energy users,” he said.

Harrington said it was therefore important for government to come up with a clear policy and programme on the utilisation of the now controversial Carbon Emission Surtax.

“In the absence of a clear policy and programme, the affected motorists and vehicle owners will continue to regard the tax with great suspicion. Even a well-intended policy will not attract public support if there is no information to sensitise the public,” Harrington said.

Some citizens have even referred to the new tax as just another “rip-off” by the government.

Many are furious about having to pay yet another tax which they know little or nothing about, forcing them to dig deeper in their already depleted pockets.

They are demanding, and justifiably so, to know what their hard-earned monies will be used for.

Harrington said many motorists would like to know if indeed the government through the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Natural Resources (MTENR) has any policy and programme in place to mitigate the effects of climate change caused by carbon emitted from their vehicles.

“It is glaringly apparent that there is indeed little or no information on this newly introduced tax,” he said. “So, what is ‘Carbon Emission Surtax?’ and ‘What is the problem?’”

Harrington explained that from the environmental perspective, it was important to recognize that the tax was indeed necessary in the world which is being threatened by climate change and global warming.

“My simple understanding is that it is a tax imposed on users of vehicle, plant and machinery whose proceeds are to be used on programmes aimed or designed to mitigate against the effects of climate change such as global warming caused by carbon emissions from such equipment,” he said. “Interestingly, Zambia’s contribution to carbon emissions is comparatively small at a global level and yet we are expected to contribute heavily to global effects of climate change.”Harrington said the tax was also meant to encourage the usage of vehicles and plant that did not emit harmful carbon into the atmosphere.

“Currently and for some time to come, Zambia will continue to rely on the conventional type of vehicle and there are no alternatives. Hundreds of cheap used but affordable vehicles are being dumped in our country and new technology vehicles will not be available in the near future. Why tax the motorist then if there are no non-carbon emitting vehicles available currently in Zambia,” he asked.

Harrington said the government’s attempt to explain the carbon Emission Surtax on domestic and imported motor vehicles had failed to meet people’s expectations.

He added that his attempts to get government’s position on this tax from the tourism ministry were fruitless as he was referred to check the 2010 National Budget.

“In the budget, government only refers to the Carbon Emissions Surtax as a source of revenue,” he said. “So with the obvious lack of transparency and information on programmes for utilisation of this staggering K30.7 figure, concerned motorists will be justified in continuing to question the motives behind this so-called “revenue measure”. What with the costly on-going National Constitutional Conference (NCC), impending national census and referendum, and indeed the forthcoming 2011 general elections. Quite understandably, Government needs to raise huge sums of money,” he observed.

Harrington said the carbon emission tax in Zambia was ill-timed and somewhat immoral in the absence of a clear environmental policy and programme in place to justify the tax.

But other stakeholders like Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) defended the tax saying it was not new but had been collected from the border posts.

ZRA Commissioner General Chriticles Mwansa explained that the law had not changed on carbon tax except for the paying points.

“Carbon tax is not a new tax. People importing cars have always been paying for it but may not have realised it,” he said. “People were paying for this tax as they were clearing their cars at border points.”

Mwansa explained that ZRA had more strength at border areas than the Road Traffic and Transport Agency (RTSA) hence the agreement between the two parties to have the authority collect the tax.

“Now that RTSA has put its house in order, they are collecting this tax through the quarterly road taxes,” he said.

And Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS) said the carbon emission tax should help the government to embark on programmes meant to mitigate the effects of climate change.

CUTS centre coordinator Angela Mulenga said the introduction of the carbon emission tax would give Zambia time to learn and contribute on the way forward that would benefit the country.

“This will require a lot of consultation, research and policy changes. When these consultations are done, the Zambian government should deliver on the recommendations to this year’s United Nations Climate Change Summit to be held in Mexico,” she said.

Mulenga said this was not time to blame the Western world for global warming but to find solutions which would help the world mitigate the effects of global warming.

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