Big. Tough. Probably too cheap.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Save the Climate With a Sin Tax on SUVs

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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For all the attention being paid to President Barack Obama's plan for the U.S. to use less coal, remember: It's hard to imagine Americans making a deep enough reduction in carbon emissions unless they start buying more electric cars and fewer pickups and SUVs (at least ones that don't run on batteries).

Yet the drop in sales of electric cars suggests the country is getting further from that goal. 

Purchases haven't just fallen in absolute terms. Electric cars' share of total car and truck sales is lower than at any point since 2011.

Meanwhile, sales of light trucks keep rising. For every electric vehicle purchased in the U.S. in the first 10 months of the year, Americans bought almost 20 SUVs, minivans or pickups.

Of course, light trucks are more fuel-efficient than they used to be. But not that much: The average 2013-model light truck gets 25.3 miles to the gallon, compared with 21.8 miles for trucks made a decade earlier. If that seems like good mileage, consider that the average 2013 passenger car gets 36 miles, and some electric vehicles can run on no gas at all. And given that the average age of cars on the road is 11.5 years, today's sales could shape the country's auto fleet into the 2030s.

QuickTake The Cost of Carbon

What might spur a change in purchase patterns? The usual prescription from climate advocates is making gas more expensive, say through a carbon tax, pushing more people to buy smaller cars or electric vehicles. But even that might not help much, given that people have trouble accounting for future costs when making decisions.

The unpalatable but probably unavoidable solution is adding an excise tax to sales of vehicles with the lowest mileage, moving more of the future cost to the moment of purchase. The government could use the money to further subsidize the cost of electric cars, or help fund the network of charging stations.

QuickTake Batteries

The utility of sin taxes for lowering cigarette and alcohol consumption is widely accepted. The only real question is whether big cars that don't run on batteries ought to be in the same category. Before the advent of more affordable and reliable electric vehicles, an excise tax would have seemed overly punitive. And when sales of electric vehicles were increasing, such a tax would have looked premature.

But if the current mix of technology, tax credits and fuel-efficiency mandates proves inadequate to shift Americans' tastes, a point-of-purchase surtax gets harder to ignore. Of course, trying to pass one would make the debate about Obama's electricity reforms look like an argument over who gets the last biscuit at teatime.   

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net