User Fee for the Global Commons?

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The German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) suggests in its Special Report Charging the Use of Global Commons (2002) that a fee should be put on the usage of global commons, like the atmosphere or the seas. The report argues that airspace and the seas are natural common goods for which property rights are not sufficiently defined. Because of the lack of international regulations over their usage, these commons are overexploited and therefore the international community should take charge of their protection. The report shows that, for example, the CO2 emissions from international aviation or shipping are not included in the national emission listings and so they are also not subject to, for example, the Kyoto Protocol commitments. The liberalization of aviation leading to cheaper flights has also further added to the problem. The report suggests that this could be fixed by introducing user charges that could be the first practical step towards a global system for the conservation of natural goods. The charges would not only create an incentive to reduce the environmental impact but also the revenue collected could be then used for conserving these common goods. The report predicts that user charges might also be an additional incentive to plan and create innovative and improved technologies and lead to changes in behaviour when using the global commons. However, the report acknowledges the challenges and the scepticism that has surrounded these kinds of ideas. There are, for example, fears of unemployment and loss of competitiveness. Emerging countries have also been afraid that this might affect their tourism industry as well as increase transporting costs for exporting to the foreign markets.  

Philippe Douste-Blazy (2010) writes in his article, Millennium Development Miles, also about the aviation user charges but in a slightly different context. He mentions how a small fee introduced to air tickets have collected 1,5 billon USD since 2007 to the UN sponsored international drug purchase facility, UNITAID. According to Douste-Blazy, the money has been used to fight diseases like HIV/AIDS, to reduce child mortality and to improve maternal health – the three health related MDGs. For example, UNITAID can finance drugs for three-quarters of the children receiving anti-retrovirals in the world today. Douste-Blazy continues that UNITAID has now got together with the Millennium Foundation to create a fundraising mechanism called Voluntary Solidarity Contribution that gives the possibility for travellers to add an extra 2 USD to their plane ticket purchase and so make voluntary donation. Even though this only applies to 7-10% of all airline tickets, it has still managed to collect 400 million USD a year. Extending this programme would naturally, Douste-Blazy argues, increase the collected amounts even more.

The idea of a user charge does give us something to think about. Would a charge in air flights be a good solution to fight the climate change in one way at least? Surely this extra money collected and spend on a “good cause” cannot be a bad thing. Collecting a small amount of extra money (like that 2USD) probably does not make a difference to most of us. But when calculating together like Douste-Blazy shows, it does come up to a considerable amount. What to spend that money on, I cannot say. Would be great we could use it for developing new technologies that help us to fight the climate change, but are not the medicines important as well?

However, is collecting a user fee a sustainable solution? Would it really change our behaviour when coming to the usage of the global commons, like suggested in the report? Today people travel a lot and long distances. Which one of us is ready to change their habits and travel less in order to fight the climate change and is it even realistic to expect us to do so? And we have not even mentioned the needs for transportation in trade. As the hope of many is to see more economic growth and more trade, does that not imply more transportation, via air, oceans or even just roads?  If we keep travelling and transporting our goods to the same speed and amounts – or even faster and bigger amounts –  as before, can a small sum collected as an extra fee make that much of a difference? Or is this just another way to make us feel good about ourselves for doing ‘all this for a good cause’ – to fight the climate change with 2 dollars – and distract us from the real issue; the excessive and unsustainable usage of our global commons and our environment?

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