Monday, April 15, 2024

Under EU pressure, the Polish government wants to rid roads of SUVs

Early rush hour scene (iStock – Canetti)

Two years from now, every owner of a internal-combustion car in Poland will pay an extra tax, which is a condition imposed by the European Commission for Poland to get access to Next Generation EU recovery funds. This tax is to be higher for heavier cars. Here is how Donald Tusk’s government wants to rid the roads of SUVs.


By Łukasz Zboralski

The tax on internal-combustion cars will be introduced by the current government, but the idea did not come from this government. It is the Law and Justice-led United Right coalition of the previous government that made this commitment in order to receive the European Union funds that had been allocated to Poland’s national recovery plan as part of the bloc’s post-Covid Next Generation EU “recovery and resilience facility.” The corresponding provision can be found in a document prepared by Mateusz Morawiecki’s cabinet: “Plans include introducing new regulations aimed at limiting transportation emissions. The planned charge and tax will be subject to CO₂ or NOx emissions, and their amount will be dependent on the level of hazardous emissions from a particular vehicle – following the ‘polluter pays more’ principle. By the end of the year 2024, the introduction of a registration charge is planned.

Making the polluter pay will obviously not make the air cleaner. Thus, for the charge to make sense it has to bring about a change. We already know what that change will be: the tax is intended to discourage citizens from keeping the oldest cars, whose emission standards are the worst. Such is at least the plan on the EU level. How will this work in Poland? Here, we would need to refer to vehicle age statistics. These have never been reported correctly in Poland, because the state-run Central Register of Vehicles and Drivers (CEPiK) includes “ghosts” – that is, vehicles which certainly no longer exist and are no longer operating on Polish roads.

It is only this year that this register is to be corrected. That is why if one relied solely on Eurostat data, it followed – as, for example, in 2019 – that in Poland cars that were 20 or more years old made up 37 per cent of all cars. These figures are obviously not reliable. This year, the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) has published more reliable data concerning the total number of cars in Poland. According to their report, the average age of 252 million passenger cars travelling on the EU’s roads is 12.3 years. This comparison no longer puts Poland among the countries with the oldest cars. The average age of Poland’s vehicles was estimated at 14.9 years, which places us in the lower half of the European classification, but on average similarly-aged autos are owned by Romanians (14.9 years), Lithuanians (14.7 years), and Slovakians (14.7 years). Older cars are also driven by Czechs (15.9 years), Latvians (15.2 years), and Estonians (16.6 years).

The poorest will pay

Even if more up-to-date data shows a lower average age of cars on Polish roads, there will still be many people who own the oldest. And if the new taxation scheme is to push these vehicles off the market, then whose problem will it be? Those who should worry are the poorest Poles, who can only afford the worst cars – that is, the oldest ones. The double problem will consist in the tax “on polluting” punishing first and foremost those living in smaller towns. This is because not only are they relatively worse off, but they also cannot transit their areas of residence in any other way. Public transportation in Poland has come to a standstill, and the car is the only way to go to work, for example. This tax would therefore be a mechanism that would be completely different from the low emission zones (LEZs) – Warsaw is introducing the first such zone in Poland – and would indeed eliminate the cars producing the most polluted exhaust from city centers, which are relatively easy to reach by other means of transport. Thus, there is no doubt that the wallets of the poorest will be the first to be “cleansed.” How hard the Polish government – which currently has no good ideas on how to restore public transportation, and neither did the previous cabinets – will wish to press the poorest on this issue remains an open question. Any country may act overzealously, or else in a manner that does the minimum harm to its citizens while meeting the EU obligations. In Poland, unfortunately, governments have often promoted overzealous solutions.

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More expensive registrations will already begin in a year

The first statements sound optimistic, but only for a short time. This is because Poland has agreed to two kinds of taxation: an increase is expected in the charge for internal-combustion cars that are registered for the first time in Poland, and an annual fee for such vehicles is to commence. The terms of Poland’s national recovery plan are phrased as follows:

By the end of the year 2024, a registration charge will be introduced, and a tax on owning a vehicle will follow by the end of the second quarter of the year 2026. This measure is aimed at reducing the number of highest-emission vehicles and promoting low-emission means of transport. The proceeds from the above-mentioned charges will be allocated to the development of low-emission public transport, which will limit the problem of transport exclusion.

But it is already known that the registration tax will not be introduced until next year. This was revealed by Krzysztof Bolesta, the Vice Minister for Climate and the Environment, in an interview with the Rzeczpospolita newspaper. At the same time, he announced that the fee simply for owning a car will be enacted by 2026. Vehicle owners are obviously most interested in how high these taxes will be. Unfortunately, this is still unknown. Although in the press there was speculation that the tax on owning a gas-powered car – the idea is to include hybrids, as they also have internal combustion engines – may amount to between 5 and 18 percent of the car’s value. This has not been confirmed, however: the Ministry of Climate has still not decided on the amount of such fees. It is nevertheless known that Polish officials are dreaming of their own version of the French war against particular car models. It is also known that the tax may be based on European standards, or simply on the CO₂ emission scale.

Not only that, though. As Vice Minister Bolesta announced in Rzeczpospolita: “You can have it both ways. I’ll propose adding another element, namely the weight. The problem of big SUVs is growing, and the SUV-ization of the automotive industry is a very bad trend. If the owners of those cars can be forced to assume, at least financially, more responsibility for taking up more space, then I would be inclined to do so.

And so for low-emission zones, the tax in Poland will be aimed at something very different from the regulations that were recently adopted in France, for example. Last February a referendum on parking fees for SUVs was held in Paris. Why? SUVs are bulkier cars; they take up more urban space. Their larger mass also requires bigger engines, which consume more fuel – so the resulting pollution can also be higher. Parisians had a chance to decide in a referendum whether parking those cars should cost more than parking conventional passenger cars. A majority found that it should. We must note, however, that the referendum turnout was under 6 percent of those eligible to vote. Starting next fall, parking an SUV in the center of Paris will cost 18 euros per hour, and in other areas, 12 euros (which is three times more than before).

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What about Poland? If the statements coming from the Climate Ministry are actually carried out, then the extra charge will hit every SUV owner – including those who do not drive them in the centers of big cities, but only use them in their hometowns – small villages on the edges of forests. Although I am no fan of SUVs (they have no useful advantages apart from the fact that they are more expensive for their owners, are more difficult to park, and consume more fuel; besides which they often exceed 2.5 tons, which in Polish circumstances means that they must be parked away from sidewalks), all the same I really cannot see any logic in these ministerial announcements – unless Poland simply wants to force SUVs off the roads. This would come as a surprise, because this segment of the car market has dominated the automotive industry, whether we like it or not. Suffice to say that in 2023, SUVs constituted more than half of the vehicles sold in Europe.