Waste in Space – will environmental taxes break through the final frontier?

24 May 2022

Much has been written recently about the economic benefits to the UK’s national, regional and local economies arising from the exploration and exploitation of near and outer space. But at what cost to our orbiting environment?

A recent piece of research by the University of Edinburgh noted the vast quantities of man-made space debris hurtling around in orbit above our heads and suggested that space also needs special legal protection, like that given to land, sea and atmosphere, to protect its fragile environment. This debris may damage or even destroy other satellites on the same orbit or plunge back to earth and cause environmental damage if it doesn’t fully burn up on re-entry. And not to mention the pollution arising from rocket launches themselves.    

We know from the recent United Nations COP 26 climate talks in Glasgow what the international community is seeking to achieve on Earth as regards net-zero emission targets to protect and restore our ecosystems. But what of our eco-impact in space?

Perhaps now it’s the time for the various international space agencies, tax authorities and the UK government to cast their eyes skywards and look at space-based environmental taxation to improve the behaviours of those seeking to exploit this marketplace.

UK ministers have the power to use tax measures to support environmental goals. Indeed, we have seen this in action already, most recently with the introduction of Plastic Packaging Tax on 1 April this year. In the UK (and its devolved government equivalents) we have Air Passenger Duty, Landfill Tax, Aggregates Levy, and indeed who can forget the Plastic Bag Tax.

So, what international and/or indigenous environmental taxes might work in near and outer space to encourage better behaviours by industry, commerce and even space tourists?

Elon Musk is on record as suggesting that the best way to decrease carbon dioxide emissions would be to add a carbon tax to those who burn fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Taking that to the next level, what about a special tax or levy payable specifically on rocket fuel, over and above any other indirect tax such as VAT? Or introducing rebates, refunds or financial incentives to those who can develop and utilise alternatives in the production of rocket fuel to make launch emissions less harmful to the atmosphere. 

What about introducing a levy paid by at the launch site by space tourists such as Space Passenger Duty (SPD)? SPD could be based on the time spent in space rather than say the distance travelled by the space tourist to the Moon or Mars.

For those seeking to leave debris in orbit and not bring it back to earth for recycling, they could pay a Spacefill Tax, but of course not one based on weight.

The taxation opportunities are infinite and only limited by our imagination. We have the opportunity to boldly go where no one has gone before.