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.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

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