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China Comes Up for Air

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A new carbon tax could help improve China's air quality, including the famously smoggy Shanghai skyline.

CREDIT: Flickr/ Jim Fischer

In photos, Shanghai is surreal. Massive glittering spheres and spires, glowing ghostly neon through the haze like something out of a Wells novel. China’s infamous smog is something of a national sore spot, but the cloud may yet be lifted from the world’s biggest carbon polluter.

Last week, Chinese state media reported government plans to impose a new set of environmental taxes on the irreverently industrialized nation.

The announcement came from Jia Chen, head of the Ministry of Finance’s tax policy division. The new measures would include a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, to be levied by local authorities, according to the Xinhua news agency. Further details are scant. 

“Everything in China is a little complicated,” Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the National Resources Defense Council, told Campus Progress. Schmidt said the announcement hints at a growing sense of accountability within the Chinese government – a good thing, he said, coming from a regime that is prone to environmental flippancy.

But climate analysts are skeptical. Laden with an inefficient, fossil fuel-dependent economy, China has a historically flimsy environmental policy—ostensibly forward—thinking, but tailored to make enforcement near impossible.

“What happens in Beijing doesn’t always trickle down to the provinces,” Schmidt said.

The government continues to make rapid urbanization and the gross domestic product its top priorities, even as Chinese citizens, including outspoken young people, are finding their political voices and demanding change. 

Still, an official step toward sustainability, however perfunctory, is a step in the right direction.

China has long been the standard of environmental ineptitude in the developed world—the smoking, coal-smudged yardstick by which other nations enthusiastically measure their own pantomimed progressivism. Analysts have speculated that a more sustainable China could pressure the world’s second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions—the United States—into more decisive climate action.

Schmidt said China’s new taxes are “clearly a promising hint” that the government is starting to respond to public demands, but added that it could be a long time before the people see any results. He paraphrased an old Chinese proverb:

“Heaven is high, and the emperor is far away.”

Cody Bond is a reporter with Campus Progress.

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