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China's carbon tax is very real

Alvin Lin

Yang Fuqiang

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An incendiary Wall Street Journal article has accused Beijing of trying to dupe the world with a smokescreen carbon levy. The author is plain wrong, write Alvin Lin and Yang Fuqiang.

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The news that China may very soon introduce a carbon tax has caused a stir. Of the many articles to address the topic, John Lee’s Wall Street Journal commentary “China’s Fake Carbon Tax”, published earlier this month, is particularly striking. In this confusing diatribe, Lee puts forward his personal theories about China’s motives. But these have no foundation in reality.

Why is China preparing to introduce a carbon tax? Taxing carbon is an effective market-based method for cutting carbon-dioxide emissions and tackling climate change. Many countries, both developed and developing, are considering a carbon tax, while some have already introduced one. The details of the tax differ from place to place, but the essential aim is the same: reducing carbon emissions; speeding up economic transition; promoting energy conservation and renewable-energy development; and mobilising industry enthusiasm for green measures.

At the same time as tackling climate change, carbon taxes can bring wider benefits to society. For example, measures to cut carbon emissions may also limit the release of other pollutants, while carbon funds can be used to help poor families buy energy-saving domestic appliances.

China’s approach to developing a carbon tax has been earnest and serious. We are honoured to have participated in the Chinese government’s research programme. In mid-2007, the Ministry of Finance formally listed a carbon tax in its revenue research plan. The government, bringing together top-level research units and the brightest minds, has since undertaken years of research on the topic. Key participating organisations have included the Institute of Fiscal Science, the Institute of Environmental Planning, the Energy Development and Reform Commission and Tsinghua University, among others.

Any carbon tax scheme introduced in China must properly account for the country’s phase of development, the impacts on different industries and consumers and the need to minimise negative impacts. The government must also choose the most favourable time for implementation. Certainly, China’s carbon tax will have its own characteristics and will not follow the same model used in developed countries.

However, Lee argues that the timing of recent announcements about the introduction of a carbon tax in China is suspicious. Since the economic crisis has meant a slowing in China’s economic growth, he concludes that the Chinese government must have hidden motives to introduce the tax. “Don’t be fooled by China’s actions,” he writes. “Beijing’s proposal is little more than clever political theatre, mixed with passing the economic buck.” From this starting point he launches an attack on China’s low-carbon plans. 

China and other developing countries have made suitable Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMA), setting out their commitments to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Where is the theatre in that? Compare this to the agreement reached at the 2009 summit in Copenhagen, when many western countries undertook to provide US$100 billion by 2020 to help developing countries deal with climate change. It is critical that developed countries step up to the plate in the post-2012 period and find ways to mobilise the money they have committed to provide to developing countries.

Compared to many developed countries, developing-world nations tend to be very bad at public relations. According to international climate-change agreements, every country must report its emission-reduction actions and achievements. Between 2005 and 2010, during the 11th Five-Year Plan period, China’s efforts led to a carbon-emissions saving of about 1.5 billion tonnes – the world’s single biggest national emissions reduction. But even then, China didn’t make a political song and dance about it. Perhaps that is why when China announces a new emissions-reduction measure, Lee labels it: “political theatre” and “a pre-emptive strike against international pressure, not a commitment against climate change”.

The Chinese government recently announced the launch of carbon-trading pilot projects in five cities and two provinces. Perhaps the government has done too little to publicise the scheme, or maybe Lee is simply ill-informed, but he arbitrarily claims that choosing to levy a carbon tax rather than adopting a cap-and-trade scheme “revealed the government’s true intent” – that there would be no “strict limit on the total amount of carbon emitted”. The truth is that China announced back in 2011 that it was gearing up to launch pilot carbon-trading platforms. In other words, China’s work on carbon trading pre-dates its action on carbon tax. 

Introducing a carbon tax can actually help to promote and improve a carbon-trading system. A carbon tax and a carbon market can co-exist. And, if the price of carbon in the carbon market turns out to be a better signal of market information, it’s possible that the carbon tax won’t be needed any more. How these sorts of calls are made will depend on how things play out on the ground, but Lee wants to drag the discussion into the realm of conspiracy theory.

Green, low-carbon development is the road the Chinese economy must follow. In meeting the challenge of climate change, developing economies can’t take the high-emissions route, but must instead work to reduce their carbon footprint. This is different from the “pollute first, clean up later” path taken by developed countries. 

When China, in advance of many developed countries, proposes a carbon tax and prepares to implement it during the 12th Five-Year Plan, it’s hardly surprising that some in the west, recognising that a carbon tax carries certain economic costs, wonder why. Lee, without doing any serious research, believes he has the answer: China wants to increase its “wiggle room” in international climate-change negotiations, “giving it the political cover to emit even more”. 

But a carbon tax would invigorate emissions reduction efforts and reduce the quantity of emissions. In the early stages, it would increase costs, but the long-term positive effects and economic gains would be greater. 

Clearly, China’s carbon tax plan should include a grace period for the businesses that will be most seriously affected to allow them to make the necessary changes and protect their competitiveness. During this grace period, a proportion of carbon tax revenue could be used to encourage such firms to complete the transition. But it is definitely not the case, as Lee writes, that “the government will ensure that these companies can easily bear the burden of reducing emissions.”

Lee’s crack at China’s energy-supply management is also off kilter. During the 11th Five-Year Plan, China closed down small thermal power plants with a total generating capacity of 20 million kilowatts, and new plants are all high-efficiency and large-scale. With one leap, China’s coal-fired power stations have made the transition to advanced international level, and their achievement in emissions reduction is outstanding. And yet Lee, citing data from an unknown source, says: “China’s coal consumption has been increasing by around 17% each year.” No matter how quickly coal-use is rising, an academic like Lee should not be trying to frighten people with figures plucked out of the air.

The key principles underpinning international climate-change negotiations must be adhered to. The Durban platform sets out a roadmap for reaching a new, legally binding convention on climate change action by 2015. Whether or not this agreement can maintain the principles of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, “respective capabilities”, “fairness” and “environmental integrity” is a critical issue for both developed and developing nations. 

Lee disregards these principles: let’s look at two examples he uses to justify his argument. First is the Chinese government’s opposition to European Union moves to bring aviation into its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The EU-ETS is generally a good thing for emissions reduction, but there is a design flaw: the system doesn’t differentiate between the aviation industries of developed and developing countries and for this reason it has failed to win unanimous support. Implementing it will be difficult. The system will put more pressure on, and cause more losses to, the aviation industries of developing countries than developed countries. Hopefully, before April 30, when the collection of fees formally starts, this key problem can be resolved through negotiation.

Second, is the burden of a Chinese carbon tax on exported products. Carbon-dioxide emissions from exported products account for 30% to 35% of China’s total emissions. A carbon tax, naturally, would target the companies with the highest emissions. In China’s 11th Five-Year Plan list of 1,000 high energy-consuming companies and 12th Five-Year Plan list of 10,000 high energy-consuming companies, there are few foreign firms but, as Lee points out, “foreign investors dominate China’s export industry”. In other words, foreign companies account for a large part of China’s export profits and will shoulder a tax burden. This is only fair. If, in implementation, points of unfairness do emerge, then they can be addressed through other measures.

But not everything Lee says in his article is wrong. In fact, we like two of his sentences so much, we will use them to conclude this article. The first is this: “Environmentalists will argue that plans for a carbon tax by the largest emitter of greenhouse gases are a sign of Beijing's genuine commitment to do its part.” 

The second? “The carbon tax is of a piece with the fact that the current Five-Year Plan is the first to explicitly commit to market mechanisms to reduce the country’s carbon emissions as part of the plan's ‘green, low-carbon development concept’.”

Lee should stick to the facts. 

Alvin Lin is climate and energy policy director for China at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Yang Fuqiang is NRDC’s senior advisor on energy, environment and climate change.
 

This article is published as part of our Green Growth project, a collaboration between chinadialogue and the Energy Foundation.

Homepage image by Greenpeace / Zhiyong Fu

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税已经有了...

官方宣布开征碳税具有很高的象征含义。事实上,中国已设有很多税项。只是微不足道的每吨10元,我肯定有很多特定领域政策所规定的有效减排费用要比这要高得多,例如小型工厂关闭计划。而且根据每兆瓦的发电量排放约1吨二氧化碳,可再生能源附加费为每千瓦0.008元,实际上也相当于每吨碳排放征收8元的税。

already have a tax...

the official announcement of a carbon tax is highly symbolic. in fact, china already has many effective taxes in place. the measly price of CNY 10/t, I'm sure there are many sector specific policies that cause a much higher effective abatement cost than this, such as small plant closures program. also the renewable energy surcharge of CNY 0.008/kWh, is actually CNY 8/t effective carbon tax as well given about 1 t co2 emitted per MWh of electricity produced.


哪个西方主流媒体会刊登这篇文章?

非常感谢作者的论点。华尔街日报归新闻集团所有,他们刊登的文章通常有吸引眼球的标题,令人“震惊”的内容。而中国人并不擅长在政治主导的西方主流媒体上营销自己的工作和努力。在中国媒体在世界舞台上取得影响性话语权之前,中外对话或许是展示来自中国的不同声音的最好平台。做得好!

第一段有一个小错误,“匪人所思的言论”应该是“匪夷所思的言论”。

any western mainstream media will run this article?

Many thanks for the authors' arguments here. WSJ has been owned by the News Corporation and they tend to use very eye-catching headlines and "thrilling" articles. Again, the Chinese are not very good at marketing their own efforts in main stream western media, in which the politics are dominating. Before the Chinese media can have influential voice in the international arena, perhaps China Dialogue is the best stage to showcase different voices from China. Well done!
Just to point out a small typo appearing in the first paragraph: 匪人所思的言论 should be 匪夷所思的言论.


谢谢cdhelennh

谢谢cdhelennh的留言并帮助我们指出一个小的文字错误。我们已经修改。希望阅读到您更多的精彩发言。

Thanks cdhelennh

Thanks cdhelennh for your comment and spotting an error. We've change it! Look forward to reading more comments from you.

小错误

右侧作者栏, 是林明彻, 不是杨明彻

Mistake

The author column on the right should be Lin Mingche, not Yand Mingche.


谢谢指出错误。已更正。

谢谢您细心指出错误。已改正。敬请关注其它文章。

Thanks for pointing out the mistake.

We've corrected the typo. Thanks.

观点

做研究工作的认真和严谨是不应该被质疑的。然而,李先生一直指出的问题是中国政府作出的每一个决定,特别是那些向公众发布的决定,是政治化的。如果不是,那为什么有需要像国务院新闻办公室、SCRTF,或者是宣传部这样的办公机构?我不是假设这些办公室就和环境研究或者是政策本身的细节有任何关系,但是他们绝对在关于政策(事实上任何政策)什么被提及,什么时候被提及,以及多少被提及中有发言权。至于像碳税需要“合理地代表一个国家的发展阶段”,我觉得这个声明很老套。这到底是什么意思?我真的不明白。是要给中国更多发展政策空间的借口吗?如果不是,请帮助我理解。我生活在北京,让我来告诉你,在很多方面,北京是一个高度发展的现代都市。

Perception

The earnestness and seriousness of the research effort put forth should not be questioned. However, the problem that Mr. Lee may have been picking up on is that EVERY decision made by the Chinese government, especially the ones that are made public, is political. If not, then why the need for such offices as the SCIO, the SCRTF, or the propaganda department? I don’t assume that these offices necessarily have anything to do with the environmental research or the details of the policy itself, but they absolutely have a say in what is said, when it is said, and how much is said about the policy (in fact any policy).
As for a carbon tax needing to “properly account for a country’s phase of development”, I find this statement utterly cliché. Exacty what does this mean? I don’t really know. Is it an excuse meant to give China more leeway in developing policy? If not, then please enlighten me. I live in Beijing and let me tell you, in many ways Beijing is a highly developed modern city.


看法2

然而,我不断地被这么一类说法连番轰炸:由于中国是一个发展中国家,因此所有在北京(或者全国各地)存在的问题和不公,都是可以被接受甚至无视的。

但不幸的是,至于发展中国家公关能力较差这个问题,我认为就中国来讲,西方对于中国的看法与其发展阶段有太大关系。例如,大体来说美国人对印度就有一个相对正面的看法。不管你承不承认,西方(尤其是美国)对其他国家的看法总会是受到政治制度,而并非经济发展因素所影响。我私以为,当中国政府高层使用“发展中国家”这个字眼的时候,他们可能只想隐晦地表达“社会主义国家”或者“具有中国特色的社会主义”罢了。我恳请各位帮我解释一下到底什么叫具有中国特色社会主义。

而有关阴谋论的问题,我认为在描绘中国的一些事件上面,确实有一些高层官员有他们自己的一些政治计划和原因,从而控制对事件的描述,这个事实是不容质疑的。

Perception 2

And yet, I am constantly bombarded by just such an argument—because China is a developing country, so the problems and injustices that exist in Beijing (and around the country) can be somehow easier to accept or even ignore.

As for developing countries being bad at PR, unfortunately in China’s case, I don’t think China’s perception in the West has a lot to do with its stage of development. For example, Americans in general have a relatively positive view of India. The Western (especially American) perception is, whether one likes it or not, tainted more by perceived political system than economic development. My sneaking suspicion is that when the term “developing country” is used by the higher-ups in China, that it might be a codeword for “socialist country”, or perhaps “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. I implore someone to please explain to me exactly what socialism with Chinese characteristics is.

As for notions of conspiracy theory, again, I don’t think it can be denied that certain high-ups have certain agendas and certain reasons for portraying events in certain ways in China.


看法3

如果美国政府要求新闻媒体做这做那,那将被视为“政府阴谋”。这种事在中国每天都发生。政府的这种行为在西方是受鄙视的。在中国却是相对可接受的。难道只有人们认为这是阴谋的时候,它才是阴谋?
不管怎么说,如果中国的政策能够改善环境,对于中国还是世界来说都有好处。但是政治因素不能被忽视。尤其是在如今超现实主义的国际舞台上,政治优势始终是一个焦点。除非有一天零和博弈被摒弃,共同繁荣才可能实现,在此之前它仍将是一个问题。

Perception 3

If the US government was to require that a news source do this or that, this would be considered a “government conspiracy”. This happens every day in China. This kind of government activity is frowned upon in the West. But it is relatively acceptable in China. Is a conspiracy only a conspiracy if people consider it a conspiracy?
Anyways, if the Chinese policy improves the environment, then good for China and good for the world. But politics simply cannot be removed from the equation. Especially in today’s hyper-realist international arena, political advantage is always a concern. Until the day that the zero-sum game is rejected and the possibility of mutual prosperity is recognized, it will continue to be a concern.


对中国的错误报道信息挫伤发达国家的行动

中国在气候变化方面的行动,对发达国家的减缓气候变化政策有很大的影响。澳大利亚的许多劳工对此存在误解,认为澳大利亚在实施碳排放税的问题上是在“单干”或“首当其冲”,而且这正把我们自己置于不利地位之中。大家常说:“中国每天建造这么多煤炭发电厂,而澳大利亚对气候变化的整体影响却这么微弱,那为什么我们还要限制自己的排放量?”

像约翰·李以及澳大利亚保守派反对党的一些人应为蓄意扭曲中国的行为负责。现在的形势十分复杂,中国虽然绝对不是什么国际世界的气候卫士(中国民航局日前禁止境内各航空公司参与欧盟排放交易体就是一个很好的例子),但中国也并不是在原地踏步,拖拖拉拉,事实上它对于改善环境所实行的改革对于其国内来说是很大刀阔斧的。如果有越来越多的人认识到这一点,可能发达国家将会推行更加有力的举措。

Misinformation on China dampens action in developed countries

Climate mitigation policies in developed countries are strongly influenced by what China does. Here in Australia, many labour under the misapprehension that Australia is 'going it alone' or 'moving first' be implementing a carbon tax and that we are putting ourselves at a disadvantage. A common phrase is 'China is building this many coal fired power plants per day, why should we limit our own emissions, when Australia's overall contribution to climate change is so small?'

People like John Lee and the Australian conservative opposition have a lot to answer for in spreading deliberate misinformation on China's efforts. The situation is complicated and China is by no means a climate warrior internationally (China's recent ban on its airlines opting into the EU air-travel carbon tax is a case in point). But China is not exactly dragging its feet. It is taking truly bold action on climate change domestically. The more people realise this, the better the odds for stronger action in developed countries.


右翼主流媒体在对中国环境政策的报道中撒谎也是迫不得已

无论从短期还是长期来看,中央集权经济都比混乱、不合理的“弱肉强食”型经济体系表现更为出色。如果你无法对这样一个明确却令人痛苦的事实做出解释,你能做的也很明确 --- 撒谎即可。

显然,中国政府已经意识到发展低碳、低污染能源形式的紧迫性和价值。这种转变在短期之内会相当昂贵,但从在中长期来看它能令中国受益颇多。

中国目前采用科学的分析方法做重要的经济决策,这一点与腐败政治家们的利益背道相驰。他们从大买卖中获利,只有现状才是有利可图的。只有功能强大的计算机和信息系统,才能够确保在运转良好的经济制度中,通过科学的方法作出最高效、最合理的决策。就像中国正在做的一样。

Right Wing Mainstream Media is Required to Lie About China's Environmental Policies

When you cannot explain the clear and painful facts that a well regulated, centrally controlled economy performs over the long and short terms far better than chaotic, irrational, "law of the jungle" economic systems, you have to, to be very clear, simply lie.

It is obvious that the Chinese government understands the value of moving forward with haste to develop low carbon, low pollution forms of energy. This transition will be expensive in the short term, but will reap huge benefits for China in the medium to long term.

China uses scientific analysis to decide key economic decisions as opposed to utterly corrupted politicians financed by big business, for whom the status quo is very profitable. Very powerful computers and information systems ensure that the scientific approach will ensure increasingly efficient, near optimum, economic decision making in well-managed economic systems, like China's.


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