China proposes introducing a carbon tax

The developing world takes the lead in fighting climate change.

There have been growing murmurs from China that the country may be getting serious about tackling climate change, and yesterday Xinhua News Agency announced that:

 

 

The news follows on from the Chinese government's promise earlier this month to do "whatever it takes" to cap coal use in the country. The official — albeit non-binding — target is now for coal consumption to peak at 4 billion tonnes in 2015.

The full Xinhua report on the carbon tax is thin on details, but points to an earlier report from the Ministry of Finance which suggested "levying a carbon tax in 2012 at 10 yuan [£1.05] per tonne of carbon dioxide, as well as recommended increasing the tax to 50 yuan [£5.27] per tonne by 2020."

The New York Times' Vikas Bajaj notes that:

China’s plan will not make a serious dent in global warming, though the tax may still have some beneficial impact within the country, where air pollution is a serious problem. A paper from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning suggests that a small tax could still raise revenue and provide an incentive to reduce emissions, bolstering China’s renewable energy industry.

As much as many in the West have used the inaction of China as an excuse not to do anything about climate change ourselves, that logic has a corollary. China is such a massive nation that it is starting to be in its own interest to break the collective action problem which has plagued environmental causes forever. Its problems are compounded by the fact that not only is it heavily reliant on fossil fuels, but it uses those fuels in the most polluting manner possible. A glance at recent stories about smog in Beijing should reveal why the government is so concerned about reducing pollution.

The real choice the nation is faced with is whether to do that by following the Western path, of replacing polluting fossil fuels with cleaner ones, or skip that stage altogether and move straight to renewables. That move would be reminiscent of the way that many developing nations, particularly in Africa, have skipped wired communications infrastructure entirely and moved straight to mobile phones. It has its disadvantages, of course — primarily speed and cost — but also offers a huge prize at the end of the transition: if China can become a genuine world leader in renewable technology, it would likely have the 21st century sewn-up for good.

If that is the aim, this carbon tax will only be a stepping-stone on the journey. For it to truly offset the cost of pollution (and be an externality tax, rather than just a minor penalty for emitting carbon), it would have to be set in the order of £50-£100 a tonne. But if China starts to lead the way in fighting climate change, it will make it significantly harder for the developed world to carry on abdicating its responsibility.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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