A Tiny Tax in Europe, a Big Win for Climate?

Europe has taken a bold leap forward to implement an innovative plan that could help protect people and the planet. Poised to set an example of climate leadership for the developed world, will countries like the United States come along?

At the end of January European Union finance ministers approved a proposal by eleven EU member states[1] to implement a coordinated financial transaction tax (FTT) — a tiny tax on trades of stocks, bonds, and derivatives. Through a process known as “enhanced cooperation,” this subset of EU countries (dubbed the EU11) was able to move forward with a common tax policy without having to include all 27 EU member states. The European Parliament gave the proposal a green light in December 2012, and the EU Council waved it forward at their meeting last month without a vote because of overwhelming support among member states.

EU tax commissioner and FTT proponent Algirdas Šemeta called it “a major milestone.”

The next step in making the FTT proposal a reality is for the eleven member states in the “coalition of the willing” to agree to details of the common tax. Negotiations are expected to wrap up and a formal agreement officially approved by the European Parliament in 2013.

The implications are potentially huge for climate finance. That’s the money that communities in developing countries need to make the transition from climate-vulnerable to climate-resilient, and from dirty energy development to low-carbon development.

The cost of that shift is measured in the hundreds of billions (some say trillions) of dollars. Rich industrialized countries have promised to deliver $100 billion a year by 2020. A fraction of what’s needed, but still a big lift compared to today’s levels of around $10 billion a year (if you count generously).

At the tax rate originally proposed by the EU Commission of a harmonized minimum 0.1 percent for stocks and bonds and 0.01 percent on derivatives, the EU11 FTT has the potential to raise up to €37 billion (nearly $50 billion in US dollars) every year.

France, which implemented a financial transaction tax in August 2012, has already made a commitment to direct 10 percent of the tax revenue to global public goods like development, health, and climate change (3.7 percent is destined for the Green Climate Fund). Members of Germany’s Social Democrat party have made general political murmurs that if they succeed in upcoming elections they will send revenue from an FTT to development to help meet the country’s 0.7 percent ODA goal.

Global campaigners are pushing the EU11 to be ambitious in targeting a significant portion of their FTT revenue to fight climate chaos. Members of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance used the recent 2012 global climate summit to call for the eleven countries to deposit 25 percent of the money raised into the Green Climate Fund. Representatives in the EU parliament and from developing countries are also calling for FTT revenue to be used by developed countries to meet their mid-term and long-term financing obligations.

With Timothy Geithner stepping down as Secretary of Treasury there’s renewed optimism that the Obama administration might support an FTT under Jack Lew’s leadership of the Department. Supporters of the tax are planning to raise the issue at Lew’s confirmation hearing in Washington DC tomorrow.

This would be a move that experts like Joseph Stiglitz endorse, who said, “as Mr. Obama’s second term begins, we must all face the fact that our country cannot quickly, meaningfully recover without policies that directly address inequality. What’s needed is… a more progressive tax system and a tax on financial speculation.”

An FTT that raises revenue for a fund that supports developing countries in dealing with the disproportionate impacts visited upon them by climate change is an important step in fighting global inequality. Here, the EU11 can be a global leader.


[1] The 11 EU member states that have entered into enhanced cooperation are Belgium, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia and Slovakia. Any other member state may join the enhanced cooperation if they wish.