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An equitable way to fight climate change

How can China reconcile its need to develop with the urgency of the fight against global warming? Jia Hepeng has a solution: make the country’s rich act first, while the rest of the nation catches up.

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Every country – big or small, rich or poor, democratic or authoritarian – has a responsibility to reduce, if not entirely reverse, the looming threat of severe climate change. But it is not easy to involve all nations, especially developing countries.

As the world’s fastest emerging economy, China is a major player in global efforts to curb climate change. Its surging economic growth and huge energy consumption have made it one of the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitters (though whether it is the largest remains disputed). Any emissions reduction effort would be incomplete without the efforts of this rising power.

But at the same time, China still faces an enormous task to develop. Tens of millions of its people do not have clean water; hundreds of millions live in places without sewage works. China’s per capita carbon emissions are still about a quarter of that of the United States, and less than half of European levels.

This is a real dilemma. If China makes emissions reductions too early, it could risk serious injury to the country’s economy and its people’s welfare. But if it does nothing, it could speed the global climate disaster.

Recognising this, it is useful not to think of China as one whole, but to consider it as a combination of diverse sectors, regions and forces.

Looking at its gross domestic product per capita, China is firmly among the developing countries – it is nestled between Swaziland and Morocco in terms of nominal GDP per capita. But at the same time, there are now millions of wealthy Chinese living in large houses and driving their own cars. It is no surprise that luxury goods producers, from Louis Vuitton to Rolls-Royce, see China as their fastest growing market.

It is realistic, therefore, to hope to create a mechanism that will enable those higher up the social strata, who consume more carbon, to make a greater contribution to the fight against climate change, even if the nation as a whole cannot take immediate emissions reductions.

Given the influential nature of this group in terms of behaviour, measures to curb their carbon consumption are also likely to bring about changes in lifestyle among the general public, which will help to bring about adjustments in the country’s current, high-carbon development model.

Take private car ownership as an example. With an expected 10 million car sales this year, China may soon become the world’s largest car market. But private car owners are still a small proportion of the Chinese population, less than 10% in fact. This tenth of the population uses most of China’s newly added petrol consumption. Their cars swarm on avenues and streets across Chinese cities and their emissions constitute most of the country’s urban air pollution.

Imposing a differential tax rate on car purchases and fuel consumption, and perhaps introducing something similar to London’s congestion charge, would be a relatively easy way to slow the growth of private car ownership and reduce the increase in fossil-fuel consumption in the transport sector. At the same time, tax revenues levied on private car owners could be used to improve public transportation and lure people back from to the buses and subways.

China’s recent petrol price adjustment – a 16% hike announced on June 20 -- could be seen as a signal of a new approach. Agricultural machinery, buses and taxi drivers remain more heavily subsidised to stave off the impacts of the price rise, while private car owners are left to fend for themselves.

But this is far from enough. Despite the price rise, China’s petrol prices are still well below the petroleum purchase and processing costs. Ultimately, fuel taxes should be used to keep gasoline prices high and inhibit the growth of fossil-fuel consumption.

The logic is correct, though. Private car owners use more resources and consume more fossil fuels; it is therefore reasonable to make them contribute more to emissions reductions. The question that remains is how far, and how equitably, fuel prices can be adjusted and fuel taxes imposed.

The benefits of targeting private car owners go beyond the reduced growth in fossil-fuel consumption. If private car owners can be pushed to choose buses and subways, it will also reduce demand in the highly energy consuming steel and cement industries that manufacture cars and build expressways.

Reducing car use will discourage the automobile from remaining a fashionable symbol of higher living standards. It can also help to stem the dramatic rise in the obesity rate in China, which scientists have linked to the use of private cars.

A similar approach can be adopted in the housing sector. Of course, people have a right to better living standards. But levying property taxes on big flats of several hundred square metres or more, or on the ownership of several properties, could help to guide more rational property choices, reducing energy consumption and cutting emissions in the construction sector. This is also a good way to slash property speculation, which has resulted in real estate bubbles in most Chinese cities.

The strongest opposition to all of these proposals is that they will curb internal demand and reduce economic growth. But this argument is flawed. Providing a greater number of people with more convenient public transportation will also create internal demand, and housing the homeless across China could boost economic growth too.

Researchers at the UK’s Oxford Institute for Energy Studies recently studied what would happen if China pursued the Swedish growth model: prioritising public transportation and moderate housing consumption. They found the country would consume far less energy than with its current pattern, which is more similar to – or at least approaching – the US model with its focus on private car ownership, sprawling cities and big houses.

Others will protest about how wealth is measured. If I have a car, but it is only a 0.8-litre Chery QQ – a cheap, small Chinese car – why should I pay more? But although a QQ owner is less wealthy than a Rolls-Royce driver, a QQ still takes up four times the space of a bicycle and consumes 10 times more energy than taking the bus. And even owning a QQ is far beyond what most Chinese people can afford. The QQ owner should still pay to help reduce climate change, because of his or her higher consumption of fossil fuels and transportation resources.

The wealthy classes, who own private cars and larger houses, will mount loud protests – and they have political allies and stronger voices among policy-makers. But curbing climate change is an inevitable obligation for all people, and this will mean policies that prioritise the public interest above individual wealth.


Jia Hepeng is China coordinator for the London-based publication SciDev.Net (Science and Development Network) and co-founder of China’s Climate Change Journalists Club.

Homepage photo by ullrich.c

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


(本评论由Zheng Shen翻译)

cities take big steps?

How about looking at the GDP of the major cities: beijing shanghai shenzhen? If you only look at the major cities based on per capita GDP, they must be considered a developed nation by now. Maybe we can push the mayors of the major cities to commit to climate targets, commit to reductions in CO2. Then you could chart how they meet these reductions. Then bring these reduction strategies to 2nd tier cities like Chengdu Xian and Shenyang.

- sustainablejohn

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

贾鹤鹏/Jia Hepeng


mitigation regulation offers cure for social inequality

I totally agree with Sustainablejohn’s comments. In this article I argued that folks who got rich first shoulder the responsibility of mitigation, which in essence goes with the idea that more of the duty should be shifted onto some specific industries or regions. This is not only for the purpose of mitigation, but for China’s sustainable development as well. Among the many specific problems China faces in its development, one of grave importance is the large scale social inequality due to disparity in distribution of natural resources and individual capabilities. Furthermore, the scarcity of natural resources renders the gap between rich and poor hard to close. Hence comes the dilemma of China’s economy: first the big low-income earning population drags domestic demand down, next feeble domestic demand calls for stepping up export, then stepping up export entails wage repression on labors, and then wages repression further shrink domestic demand. Statistically, the regulation (not management) of classes/regions which turn wealthy first in terms of climate change and environmental protection can do good to mitigation as well as social justice. But to carry out such measures will be certain to encounter obstacles as policy-makers and their advisers belong exactly to the get-rich-first group, who are unwilling to stand by the left-behind majority of people.
------Jia Hepeng
(Comment translated by Yang bin. The title is added by translator.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Support for this article’s viewpoint

I believe rich people must undertake this responsibility, they can’t just sit in a corner counting money, they should also reflect a bit on what they can do for the Earth! (Comment translated by Michelle Deeter)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


何不就此向前迈一步,把这些发达城市和地区的规划和承诺作为后京都时代协议对中国要求的“可量化、报告、可查证”的行动?城市的减排机会几乎都是低成本甚至是负成本,并且中国方面的坚定承诺可以带动西方国家采取更大的举措。这也可以与中国现有的可再生能源和降低污染目标结合起来。Andy Stevenson 香港思汇政策研究所
-本评论由Yang bin翻译

Post-Kyoto Commitment

Why not take it one step further and make the plans and commitments of these more developed cities/regions China's "measurable, reportable, and verifiable" action that they will be required to take in the post-Kyoto agreement? Reduction opportunities in cities are almost all low or negative-cost, and a firm commitment from China in this way could induce greater action from western countries. This could be combined with China's existing renewable energy and pollution reduction targets.

-Andy Stevenson
Civic Exchange (思汇政策研究所), Hong Kong

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



a well written article

A good article by Mr. Jia. Those who consume more resources ought to shoulder more responsibilities. The Chinese government should institutionalize this arrangement, both politically and legally.
----Liu Jianqiang
Translated by Bin Yang

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


(本评论由Zheng Shen翻译)

the power of law

Why is it that the Chinese continue to downplay the effectiveness of consistently enforcing environmental laws while playing up getting free technology and fistfulls of cash from the West?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


(本评论由Bin Yang翻译)

Please read the Convention

This is ridiculaous. If you don't know what the Chinese, and indeed other developing countries, are asking for, please do some research and read something first. Show me the evidence that the Chinese are asking for "free" technology. Please read, in particular, Articles 4.5 and 4.7 of the UNFCCC Convention.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






-----Mike Parr
(本评论由Zheng Shen翻译)

Very Good Article

I thought the article was very good. However, where I was truly surprised is with the statement that petrol in China is sold at below the cost of production (quoting).

"Despite the price rise, China’s petrol prices are still well below the petroleum purchase and processing costs"

Working on the basis that this is correct then:
a) richer Chinese i.e the ones with cars are being subsidised by ... the Chinese government??
b) if a) is correct then resources are being diverted away from important and worthy areas such as the provision of clean water supplies and sewage treatment. Perhaps this is something the government/Chinese society may wish to reflect on.
In terms of alternative transport, I can remember when the options for transport in China was public or bicycle. Maybe it is time to consider how best to promote "mixed modes" of transport which include bicycles. I would add that I try to practise what I preach in that I use a bicycle as much as possible.

Mike Parr.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


(本评论由Zheng Shen翻译)

This equitable way only can be practice in theory

This article looks sam as UNFCCC.It is hard to change people's life style.Just like Americans know their cars make a lot of pullotion.But nobody wanna change it and to use bikes to go work instead of car.