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.

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