Campaigners call for EU to tax fishing industry to fund decarbonisation
The EU lavished up to €15.7bn in fossil fuel subsidies on its fishing industry over the last decade but campaigners are calling for those funds to be redirected towards decarbonisation.
Fuel tax exemptions for the fishing industry save so much money that they could pay the salaries of 20,000 fishers every year – or pay for 6,000 new energy reduction and decarbonisation projects, according to an analysis.
Europe’s fishing fleet emitted at least 56m tonnes of CO2 between 2010 and 2020, more than twice as much as Malta over the same period, the paper says. But a true figure would be much higher, with studies indicating that practices such as bottom trawling release as much CO2 as the entire aviation industry. Even so, Europe’s fishing vessels – like its aircraft – pay no fuel taxes at present.
“Vast sums of money could be put to use for good fisheries performance,” said one of the report’s authors, Dr Laura Elsler. “The data clearly shows that by supporting the biggest emitters, fuel subsidies stand in the way of a transition to low-carbon fisheries.”
The EU could generate €681m a year if its fishing fleet was taxed at 33 cents a litre, and €1.4bn if it paid the 67 cents a litre average rate charged to road transport users, the study says.
Switching tax streams to fund a decarbonisation push would help the EU “shift from unsustainable and unprofitable fishing to income-supporting and environmentally sound use of public money”, added the report co-author, Dr Maartje Oostdijk, a researcher at the University of Iceland.
The EU says it is committed to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies but an energy tax review under its Green Deal proposes only an ultra-low industry tax rate of 3.6 cents a litre for fishing vessels.
Even this tax band – described as “preposterously low” by the study – is being opposed by fishing countries including France, Spain and Cyprus, which want the sector to continue paying no taxes.
Daniel Voces de Onaíndi, the director of the Europêche fishing industry association, said EU fishers had cut their greenhouse gas emissions by half since 1990.
“We are not waiting for NGOs to initiate this path,” he said. “However, given the lack of alternative propulsion technologies or net zero carbon fuels, fuel oil taxation will not drive any transition to decarbonisation. It will only penalise the sector and even more under the [current] unprecedented fuel prices.”
The European Commission did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Campaigners say revenues raised from a gradually imposed fuel tax could be used to fund the research and rollout of alternative technologies for fishing boats such as wind-assisted propulsion, batteries and green hydrogen systems.
The report also proposes decarbonisation projects to, for example, electrify harbours for shoreside power and provide more fuel-efficient fishing gear that reduces bycatch.
“The EU fishing industry faces the dual challenge of climate change and overharvesting,” it says. “Therefore, any investments to reduce carbon emissions must replace – not increase – fishing industry capacity.”
Depleted fish populations also cause greater emissions because fishing boats have to sail further out to sea for longer periods to catch the same amount of fish.
The US on Tuesday signed up to a World Trade Organization agreement committing to end subsidies for vessels involved in overfishing, or the fishing of species whose conservation status is unknown.
Flaminia Tacconi, a fisheries lawyer for the green legal group ClientEarth, said it was true that EU fishing vessels had already reduced their fuel emissions, but only “because there were way too many subsidised boats for far too few fish and the sector had to adjust to reality”.
She added: “Keeping these fuel subsidies would be a schizophrenic approach if, on the one hand, you ask the sector to move away from fossil fuels and on the other, you continue to finance them through indirect fossil fuel subsidies.”
The report says 17 alternative subsidies – covering issues from safety at sea to protecting aquatic species – could outperform the current fuel subsidy for impact by 188% when measured against environmental, social and economic criteria.
Rebecca Hubbard, the director of the Our Fish campaign, which commissioned the report, said: “There are so many other things we can do to support the fishing industry with better social, environmental and economic outcomes. Yet the EU has chosen previously – and the fishing industry continues to support – funding fossil fuel companies instead of its own industry. It doesn’t make sense.”