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/CORRECTED REPEAT*/CHINA: Tax on Chopsticks Shows Environmental Concern

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Apr 20 2006 (IPS) - A new five percent tax on disposable wooden chopsticks is a sure sign that the Chinese government is now ready to address growing charges that its rapid economic development is impacting the global environment.

Newly announced taxes on vehicles with engines of more than two litre capacity are aimed at calming fears that rapid proliferation of private cars would soon make China’s contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions rival that of the United States – the world’s biggest contributor to global warming.

The chopsticks tax is intended to persuade people to buy reusable plastic versions and slow felling in South-east Asia and other regions. According to the finance ministry, China uses up some two million cubic metres of timber annually, to make disposable chopsticks and flooring.

The new taxes came into effect Apr.1, sending shops and consumers into frenetic activity clinching last minute deals before enforcement. With new or higher taxes expected to be levied on planks for wooden floors, luxury watches and golf products, many shops in Beijing extended their working hours until midnight on Mar.31 to generate sales.

But despite the seemingly immediate effect on businesses and consumers, the new taxes were described by experts as largely symbolic in their intention to encourage energy efficiency and environmental preservation.

“Taxing chopsticks is only the beginning,” says Robert Watson, a senior scientist with the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defence Council, who advises the Chinese government on green projects and energy use. “The ability to enforce the code on energy efficiency and environmental preservation is key.”

Enforcement of conservation codes remains a problem indeed. A national audit report, released on Mar. 30, revealed that millions of yuan for water conservation projects have been mismanaged or misused. Nearly one billion yuan (125 million US dollars), was spent on building hotels or given out as subsidies and bonuses to staff members in some projects, according to the national audit office.

But there are signs that China’s top leaders are beginning to grasp the urgency of investing in energy efficiency and enforcing environmental conservation.

“The measures are an important indicator that the government is increasingly aware of the environmental consequences of unconstrained growth,” says An Tifu, a researcher with the Finance and Banking Institute of China People’s University in Beijing.

In the eleventh five-year plan (2006-2010), approved by the National People’s Congress in March, the government called for improving the efficiency of China’s use of energy and other resources. Energy per unit of GDP must be reduced by 20 percent from 2005, the plan said.

New proposals to raise the prices of energy and other resources such as water to encourage conservation, are under review by the National Reform and Development Commission, China’s top economic policy-making body.

According to the 2005 Renewable Energy law, which came into effect this year, by 2020 some 15 percent of China’s energy must come from renewable sources like wind and solar power.

These ambitious targets come on top of already announced measures to curb the country’s voracious appetite for energy. An earlier directive by Chinese regulators imposed more stringent fuel-economy standards on all vehicles sold after Jul. 1. If fully implemented, the mandated reductions in car exhausts would match the European Union standards for emissions.

But even with more efficient cars, the reduction in exhaust per vehicle cannot keep pace with the exceptional rate of growth in the number of cars.

A 15-year-old government policy to promote the growth of China’s domestic car industry has spurred car ownership to staggering levels. China’s roads are expected to be clogged with 130 million vehicles in 2020, by which time the country will have surpassed the U.S. in total car ownership.

China is already the world’s second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. If the predictions of a surge in car ownership and air travel are correct, it will far exceed the U.S. as the major cause of global warming.

China’s environmental record is so lamentable that if it imported Western consumer habits, the consequences would be hard to contain within the country. Already, China has found itself under attack for exporting its environmental problems.

Last November, a chemical spill in the Songhua river forced Harbin, a major city in northeast China, to shut down its water supply, and sent toxins into Russia. The Songhua incident, which drew protests from Russian government officials, brought into sharp focus the dreadful state of pollution of China’s cities and rivers.

Two-thirds of China’s major cities are now seriously short of fresh water, and as many as 700 million people drink water that is contaminated with human and animal waste. Most lakes and rivers are heavily polluted, or running dry.

But it is not just China that suffers. The north China plain, home to 200 million people, is drying up. The spring dust storms, which swirl out of north China and Mongolia, are now depositing dust as far away as Japan and the U.S.

When a national logging ban was introduced following the disastrous Yangtze floods in 1998, timber imports from Burma, Thailand and Indonesia shot up. As a result, hundreds of sq km of ancient tropical forests in South-east Asia have disappeared.

China has become the world’s largest importer of tropical wood, much of it logged illegally, the environmental group Greenpeace said in a new report released last week.

“Illegal logging is rampant in many of the countries that supply China with wood and this destructive trade is fuelling the global forest crisis,” said Sze Pang Cheung of Greenpeace China.

South-east Asia is also reeling under the impact of China’s plans to build dozens of new giant dams across the Mekong, the Salween and the Brahmaputra rivers.

China’s construction of two large hydroelectric dams- the Manwan and Dachaoshan – is blamed for irregular flows in the Mekong.. Two more dams are under construction, while at least another four are under consideration.

As the world’s fastest-growing economy, China wants to boost its energy-generation capacity to continue fuelling its growth. The government sees hydropower as a clean source of energy compared to the coal-fired power stations that provide the lion’s share of China’s energy needs. At the recently concluded National People’s Congress, delegates approved massive dams and reservoirs along all of the country’s major rivers.

But experts argue that it would have been cheaper and cleaner for China to have invested, instead, in energy efficiency. “Energy efficiency is China’s biggest natural resource,” says Watson.

(*This revision replaces the story moved Apr. 4)

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