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Last Updated: 05/05/2008
Air Pollution and Climate Change: China's Policy Options
David Chalmers

The Beijing Olympics have become a focus point for environmental policy discussions, including the enormity and complexity of the global climate change challenge. In this article, David Chalmers discusses China's contribution to climate change and the human security implications of the carbon tariffs that seem likely to result.

As the 2008 Olympics approach, Beijing’s horrific problems with air pollution have gained notoriety around the world. Sadly, much of the media’s attention has focused on what Beijing’s air pollution might mean for athlete’s ability to break world records, rather than what it means for human health and well being.  More ominously, the related issue of China’s skyrocketing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has been virtually ignored. Because the suffering and deaths caused by unabated GHG emissions will almost certainly far exceed those caused by air pollution in Beijing, that needs to change. Human-induced climate change and air pollution are closely related, and air pollution is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed. Nonetheless, China’s contribution to climate change ought to receive much more explicit attention and is clearly a much more important issue that the oft-discussed question of how Beijing’s air pollution might affect marathon times. 

Since the beginning of the decade, China’s  GHG emissions have increased by close to 120 percent and as of 2006 China had surpassed the US as the single largest GHG emitter (EIA, 2007). Much of the cause of this rise had to do with coal.  Already, coal-based CO2 emissions in China are more than double those in the US and just the increase in CO2 emissions predicted to occur in China between now and 2012 will likely exceed the entire level of coal-fired emissions in the US (Ibid.). The influence that this could have on the rate and impacts of human-induced climate change is alarming and has led many analysts to suggest that carbon tariffs should become major policy instruments because they are a necessary means of ensuring that reductions in GHG emissions made in developed countries will not be eclipsed by the growth of GHG emissions in developing countries. The central argument in these analyses is usually that if developed countries impose a price on carbon, and developing countries do not, a carbon tariff is needed as an equalizing force.  Without tariffs, the reasoning goes, production would flow to countries that do not price GHGs, thereby creating an implicit subsidy for imported carbon content and driving up total rates of GHG emissions.  

The case for carbon tariffs has proved to be politically persuasive and it looks increasingly likely that most or all OECD countries will eventually coordinate and implement carbon tariffs on imports countries that do not price GHG emissions. Most analyses look at such a plan from a purely economic standpoint and define its merits in terms of GDP and efficiency. The potential implications of carbon tariffs for human security and equity have, by contrast, received very little attention. This paper seeks to address that deficiency.  To do this, it asks whether or not carbon tariffs would or would not benefit human security and whether they would or would not lessen current global inequities.  

The answer, it is argued here, completely depends on the range of options against which tariffs are measured. Relative to current policies and trajectories, which can be thought of as business as usual (BAU), carbon tariffs looks very attractive.  But when compared to the broad range of available policy options available, a policy that focuses simply on carbon taxes and carbon tariffs fares quite poorly.  

To illustrate this, the first section of the paper argue that carbon tariffs are vastly preferable to BAU by describing their principal advantage over current policies and pathways. Then, in order to show how important it is to frame the issue of tariffs within a range of policy options, the next three sections consider disadvantages of carbon tariffs relative to the full range of ways that BAU can be avoided.  The final section suggests the outlines of a better approach. 

The paper’s focus is global, but very relevant to China because China’s contribution to climate change has become a major focal point of arguments for carbon tariffs. Given their large and growing role in causing anthropogenic climate change, if China would agree to binding emission targets, the OECD’s case for carbon tariffs would become much weaker. China, then, is probably the one country that can prevent the case for carbon tariffs from becoming inextricably appealing to OECD policy makers and bring to light a glimmer of hope that something much more revolutionary and beneficial to human security could come into being instead. Given vast coal supplies, it is difficult to imagine China doing that, but what an opportunity it has. In the year in which it hosting the Olympics and seeking to remake its global image China could, if it chooses, not only help the world avoid carbon tariffs, but much more importantly provide the world with its first real chance to implement the revolutionary climate policies it desperately needs.       

Carbon tariffs contribute to macro-level human security by reducing total GHG emissions

In the context of equity and human security, the principal advantage of a carbon tariff over BAU is that, if coupled with an OECD-wide carbon tax on internal emissions, it would undoubtedly result in fewer total global GHG emissions than would otherwise exist, given current policies. There is much evidence that GHG emissions will have substantial and widespread social costs in the near- to medium-term future and reducing GHG emissions ought to, therefore, be viewed as broadly beneficial to human security. 

There are two main reasons that the combination of an OECD-wide internal carbon price and an OECD-wide carbon tariff on imports (hereafter to as the tax-tariff regime) would reduce total GHG emissions.  The first is that an OECD-wide internal price on carbon emissions in the $40-$50 per ton range suggested by many tax-tariff advocates would undoubtedly drive energy use and innovation in directions that would lead OECD countries’ total GHG emissions to drop significantly.  The second is that a carbon tariff on imports would lead the total quantity of GHGs emitted by developing countries, and in particular China, to decrease because it would drive some exporting industries to less energy intensive locations and spur innovation in those that remained. 

A reduction in total anthropogenic GHG emissions would be beneficial to equity and human security because GHG emissions are almost certainly highly correlated to increases in global average temperatures (IPCC, 2007a) and increases in global average temperatures will very likely cause socio-economic harm such as increasing morbidity and mortality resulting from changing disease vectors, heat waves, floods, and droughts (IPCC, 2007b). Many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people will bear the brunt of climate related harm because they are often already exposed to climatic extremes and tend to have low adaptive capacity (IPCC, 2007b). This presents a strong case that GHG emissions are harmful to human security because of their negative consequences for human life, welfare, and dignity and raises important concerns in regard to equity because the people that will be most harmed by climatic change are, generally speaking, responsible for miniscule quantities of the emissions that caused human-induced climatic change (Barnett, 2003; Brown, 2005). 

An important caveat to the argument set forth above is that the relationship between temperature rise and socio-economic impacts is rarely direct and does not function in a vacuum. It has been pointed out that key variables determining climatic impacts such as vulnerability, adaptive capacity, and resilience vary widely along both spatial and temporal scales because they are determined by complex biophysical and social processes that are constantly in flux (Adger, 2006; O’Brien and Leichenko, 2005). Taking the nature of vulnerability and adaptive capacity into account, recent research suggests that development pathways are at least as important a determinant of human-induced climatic change and its impacts as is explicit climatic policy (Swart et al., 2003). It is, therefore, possible to imagine a situation in which high-temperature increases lead to relatively few impacts because of development pathways that result in large increases in adaptive capacity (Ibid.) Nonetheless, most studies suggest that even if anticipatory adaptation is undertaken, humans will suffer harm from climatic change, that those humans who currently have low levels of human security will suffer the most harm, and that the amount of harm is positively correlated with the amount of temperature rise (IPCC, 2007b).

Increases in adaptive capacity will reduce the amount of harm that will occur at any given temperature rise and it is, therefore, conceivable that current development pathways could change so radically that rising GHG emissions would not much aggravate existing threats to human security.  It is, however, much more likely that rising GHG emissions would, in fact, exacerbate existing threat to human security and that a carbon tariff which reduced GHG emissions would therefore be beneficial to human security as analyzed at the macro level.  Put another way, relative to the consequences of BAU, the overall effect of a carbon tariff would very likely be beneficial to the human security of most people, in most places, most of the time.  

Carbon tariffs fail to adequately consider the ethical dimensions of climatic change

Ethics is “the field of philosophical inquiry that examines concepts and their employment about what is right and wrong, obligatory and non-obligatory, and when responsibility should attach to human actions that cause harm.” (Brown et al. 2005, 7). The ethical dimensions of climatic change are crucially important to human security and equity because they suggest that a tax-tariff regime is ethically unjustifiable and provide a foundation upon which an international climate change regime with markedly more positive implications for both equity and human security than those of a tax-tariff regime could be agreed upon.

There are three particularly crucial conclusions that arise from an analysis of the ethical dimensions of climate change. First, no one person should be entitled to pollute the atmosphere any more than any other person, without strong justification (Brown et al., 2005). Second, those responsible for harm caused by GHG emissions ought to be held responsible for harm in proportion to their contribution to that harm (Ibid.). Third, cost to national economy is not an ethically justifiable reason for a state to not take action to address climatic change (Ibid.). Taken together, these represent three strong, ethically rooted arguments against a trade-tariff regime. 

Consider pollution of the atmosphere first. A number of highly educated ethicists were unable to articulate a good ethical reasoning for why one person should be allowed to pollute the atmosphere more than other, and I certainly cannot either. OECD countries’ historic emissions are vastly higher than China’s or any other developing countries and their per-capita emissions, while variable, are almost uniformly way above global averages. This suggests that OECD countries have an ethical obligation to get their own houses in order before they start thinking about tariffs. 

In regard to harm, OECD countries’ GHG emissions have clearly already caused some harm, and will undoubtedly cause much more. An ethical analysis suggests that they should in some manner be held responsible for that harm and that, far from thinking about tariffs, they ought to be thinking about how they compensate vulnerable populations for the harm they will suffer as a result of atmospheric GHG concentrations. 

Unfortunately, from a pragmatic standpoint is seems highly unlikely that the ethical considerations discussed above will be fully or even mostly integrated into whatever succeeds the Kyoto Protocol in 2012, and it has been suggested that stressing polluter pays style ethical arguments within formal negotiations may alienate key, high emitting countries such as the US. Moreover, it is far from clear that a climatic regime based strictly on ethical concerns would be beneficial to human security because, depending on how it was implemented, it could result in seriously negative consequences, primarily through economic and livelihood vectors. 

Despite such concerns, it should be self-evident that a careful, pragmatic analysis of the ethical dimensions of climate change could have substantial real-world benefits for human security and equity. Most importantly, ethics can help us better consider the human face of climatic change.  All too often the very real, very ominous, human implications of climate change get lost in big picture policy discussions. It is, therefore, important to highlight here that even though carbon tariffs would almost certainly have macro-level benefits relative to BAU, the micro-level costs in a place like China could be huge.  No policy will benefit everyone, but there are clearly potential solutions to climate change which have fewer negative implications for workers in places like China who have contributed little to the problem yet could lose their jobs if exports were curtailed than would a tax-tariff regime. As the country most responsible for the problem, the US in particular needs to acknowledge the human face of climate change and seek to support those policies which not only maximize macro-level human security, but also minimize micro-level harm. 

As a stand-alone initiative, carbon tariffs inadequately consider the role of development pathways

A huge disadvantage of carbon tariffs is that, as a stand-alone initiative, they largely ignore the importance of development pathways which, as discussed earlier, ought to be seen as just as crucial for how climatic change impacts human security as is explicit policy. In fact, given the multi-directional links between adaptive capacity, vulnerability, mitigation, human-induced climatic change, development pathways, and human security, to consider policy and development pathways as separate entities ignores the big picture and seriously impinges upon the range of solutions we ought to be considering (IPCC, 2007c). 

It would be both myopic and counter-productive for any climate regime to ignore the potential for synergistic benefits between efforts aimed at reducing human-induced climatic change and efforts toward sustainable development. These can arise through many types of projects currently ripe for development including energy efficiency, renewable energy, urban design, and sustainable agriculture, and present a range of co-benefits in regard to health and quality of life (Swart et al., 2003). By way of example, the expansion of renewable energy use can both reduce human-induced climatic change by reducing GHG emissions and concurrently enhance sustainable development by addressing the health consequences of fossil-fuel based energy.  Many such synergies are possible, and while true that some of these would be a natural by-product of a carbon price signal, it simply makes no sense to not also actively acknowledge and encourage synergies beyond those which would be achieved through a price signal alone. 

As a stand-alone initiative, carbon tariffs completely ignore the role of adaptation

It is well recognized that vulnerability, resilience, and adaptive capacity are essential determinants of how changes in climate will impact people and affect their levels of human security (Swart et al. 2003; IPCC, 2007d). It is also well recognized that “the pace and character of development influences adaptive capacity and that adaptive capacity influences the pace and character of development” (IPCC, 2007d, 817). It follows, then, that the extent to which development pathways foster and provide the means for enhanced adaptive capacity is a crucial determinant of both equity and the severity of climatic impacts on human security. As a stand-alone initiative, a tax-tariff regime is completely unable to exploit this crucial link.    

Addressing global inequities at their root is the most obviously significant way in which current climatic vulnerabilities could be addressed. But leaving aside the many good arguments that one can make for radical systemic change, simple changes in development funding priorities could have an important impact too.   We can imagine, for example, a tax-tariff regime that includes substantial funds for adaptation. OECD countries might, for instance, agree to apply some percentage of carbon tariffs collected to an adaptation fund which could be used to pay for measures to enhance adaptive capacity in particularly vulnerable countries and communities. Such a policy would be equity enhancing and significantly change the analysis of a tax-tariff regime.  As a stand-alone initiative, however, a tax-tariff regime’s failure to consider the crucial role of adaptation is clearly a serious flaw. 

The path forward

A detailed discussion of a first best, human security maximizing climatic regime is outside of this paper’s scope, and given the complexity of climatic change and human security a truly "first best" solution is probably unknown. That said, I do have a few ideas of what should, ideally, happen in the next few years in order to lay the groundwork for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol that is much more mindful of human security than its predecessor. 

Firstly, and for a whole host of ethical, pragmatic, and ultimately self-interested reasons, the US needs to get its act together and, at a minimum, approve the Lieberman-Warner bill or legislation similar to it. Second, the US should negotiate with other OECD countries to design and implement something broadly akin to the EU ETS by 2010 as a way to establish much needed credibility (and much needed GHG reductions!) before 2012.  Third, a lot more needs to happen in regard to adaptation.  Ideally this will involve a well financed adaptation fund disbursed through a quasi-independent body linked to the UNFCCC, and somewhat similar in nature to the Global Environment Facility, but without all the baggage. Fourth, the role of development pathways ought to be more explicitly acknowledged and the idea of an eventual contraction and convergence toward a steady-state economy more seriously considered. Fifth, ethics ought to be carefully and pragmatically afforded greater consideration within formal international negotiations. Sixth, and perhaps most essentially, China will need to assert some leadership by agreeing to binding reductions in exchange for significant technology transfer commitments from OECD countries.   

If the six points discussed above were realized, I believe that the 2012 post-Kyoto negotiations could lead to something much more equitable and human security positive than a stand-alone tax-tariff regime. I’m not sure what exactly that something would be, but I think it would need to include a long-term stabilization target of roughly 500-550 part per million CO2 equivalent; a significant focus on land use, land-use change, and forestry; substantial adaptation funds and detailed implementation plans for them; an expanded and improved Clean Development Mechanism; binding emission targets for India and China in exchange for significant technological commitments from the Annex-I countries; some sort of internationally harmonized carbon price in Annex-I countries and probably China too with implementation flexibility at the national level; some sort of international emissions trading; and, of course, significant emission reduction targets for Annex-I countries. 

I really wish I could say that I am optimistic that the vision I describe will be realized, but I would be lying if I said I was. I fear that come 2015, when the climate and climatic impacts will almost certainly be heating up, literally, a tax-tariff regime may begin to look a lot more attractive, and a lot more ethical, than it does now.  On the other hand, miracles have happened and this issue is so difficult and complex that I do not believe that anyone, least of all I, really has all that clear of a sense of what the precise biophysical and social consequences of climatic change are going to be, let alone what should occur in regard to policy.  That does not mean we ought not to try and figure it out.  Writing as a citizen of the country most responsible for the problem, I cannot help but feel a bit hypocritical as I say that, if we value the future well being of the planet, we should and we must. 

Works Cited

Adger N. 2006. Vulnerability. Global Environmental Change. 16: 268-281. 

Barnett J. 2003. Security and Climate Change. Global Environmental Change. 13: 7-17.

Brown D. et al. 2005. White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change. Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State


EIA. 2007. International Energy Outlook 2007.

IPCC. 2007a. Summary for Policy Makers. Contribution of WG 1 to the 4th Assessment Report.

IPCC. 2007b. Summary for Policy Makers. Contribution of Working Group Two to the 4th Assessment Report.

IPCC. 2007c. Introduction. Contribution of Working Group Three to the 4th Assessment Report.

IPCC. 2007d. Perspectives on Climate Change and Sustainability.  Contribution of Working Group Two to the 4th

Assessment Report.

O’Brien K. & Leichenko R. 2005. Climate Change, Equity, and Human Security. Paper presented International

Workshop on Human Security and Climate Oslo, 21-23 June 2005. 

Swart R., Robinjon J. and Cohen S. 2003. Climate Change and Sustainable Development: Expanding the Options.

Climate Policy. 3s1:s19-340. 

David Chalmers is a Master's degree candidate at the UN University for Peace.