Finns flock to sign petition for cheaper diesel, politicians cautious

A citizens initiative demanding the end of diesel tax met its target for 50,000 signatures in just one day, six months ahead of schedule.

Cities across the world might be looking for ways to reduce the use of harmful diesel engines, but in Finland there appears to be a groundswell of popular support for the dirty fuel.

On Monday Tuulikki Paavola published a citizens initiative demanding an end to Finland’s diesel tax was published, with the goal of getting at least the 50,000 signatures necessary for consideration by parliament. The target was smashed immediately, with 71,621 signatures by midnight on the first day.

Paavola told Yle she believes that news coverage of hikes in the price of diesel on Monday helped her cause.

“I think that people only just realised that things are like this now,” said Paavola, who lives in rural North Ostrobothnia.

The initiative will run for a further six months, and at the time of writing was approaching 100,000 signatures. Paavola herself says she is in no hurry to present the petition to parliament, and will wait until after the next elections due next spring.

Not so simple

Even then it might be difficult for anyone to cut the price of diesel. For one thing, the cost of the diesel tax is almost completely offset by a tax subsidy, ensuring the diesel tax has little effect.

For another, government is likely to seek to balance the loss of revenue with new or increased taxes elsewhere. On Tuesday even car industry lobbyists accepted that a cut in diesel taxes was unlikely.

“Taxes can’t just be left for the government to pay,” said Tero Kallio of the Association of Auto Industry in Finland. “Always when it’s one of these ‘make the state pay our taxes’ kind of issues, then plenty of people are happy to put their names down. But realism has been forgotten.”

Diesel cars have raised the ire of campaigners across the world in recent years, after Volkswagen was found to be flouting emissions standards for its diesel engines and adversely affecting air quality. In Germany urban authorities have been sued to enforce diesel bans, while an array of European cities have introduced bans, charges and low emission zones in a bid to curb the use of diesel engines.

Taxation is complicated

With elections due early next year, politicians were quick to comment on the petition. Both National Coalition leader and Finance Minister Petteri Orpo and Centre Party MP and Transport Minister Anne Berner said that they understood the depth of feeling over the issue.

"It's a really big number of signatures in a short space of time. It says that the issue raises feelings and there is pressure," said Orpo, adding that the matter could be encompassed in an upcoming reform of vehicle taxation.

"We have to look at how we can get more revenue than before straight into our infrastructure," said Berner.

Green leader Pekka Haavisto said that transport taxation has to be linked to the pollution caused by any one mode of transport.

"You can't decide taxation policy on the basis of short term moves in price, but the Greens' goal has always been that taxation would direct consumption to make it less harmful to the environment and the climate," said Haavisto. "Now our tax system has been planned as a revenue collection structure."

The deadline for the citizens initiative is 12 May 2019, the month after parliamentary elections are due.
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