A tax on breathing?

A Beijing scientist is being criticised for supposedly suggesting a levy on exhaling carbon dioxide. Li Taige explores whether the Chinese public is huffing and puffing over nothing.

Public faith in scientists seems to be in decline in China, as evidenced by the huge controversy arising from a recent speech by a Beijing ecologist.

Jiang Youxu is a scientist with the Research Institute of Forest Ecology, Environment and Protection at the Chinese Academy of Forestry, as well as a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Speaking at the China Forest and City Forum in Guangzhou on November 18, he described the significance of forests for the urban ecosystem.

After the forum, the Chinese public was presented with a new concept: a “breathing tax”. Jiang – branded a villain for wanting to inflict such a tax on average city-dwellers – immediately became the target of criticism and abuse on the Internet.

One online songwriter even came up with the “The Breathing Tax Song”, to the tune of a classic hit by the late pop star Teresa Tang (Deng Lijun):

Academician Jiang, named Youxu,
proposes a carbon tax on you,
for we are all a pollution source
and living makes you a criminal force.

Guangzhou’s New Bulletin was one of the first media outlets to report on Jiang’s speech. In an article that was soon to be widely republished, it said: “Yesterday, at the China Forest and City Forum held in Guangzhou, member of the Chinese Academy of Science Jiang Youxu called for the government to consider imposing an environmental tax on businesses or even CO2-emitting citizens … Jiang believes that since all citizens are emitters of CO2 [carbon dioxide], they should pay the costs of reducing energy use and cutting emissions”. Jiang was then quoted as saying: “Making citizens contribute 20 yuan [US$3] to an environmental fund every month could be considered.”

The Guangzhou reporter seems to have confused environmental taxes and environmental funds. In my experience as a science reporter, Chinese media reports sometimes misinterpret what scientists say.

According to the original audio transcription of Jiang’s speech, his actual words were: “As urban forests have so many obvious beneficial functions, shouldn’t we further consider the idea of an environmental tax? … [Since] every city-dweller is putting out carbon, we could give 10 or 20 yuan to a fund [and] this money could be used for reforestation, or businesses could use the money from the taxes to plant urban forests.”

Contrary to assertions, then, it seems that Jiang did not mention a “breathing tax”. Unfortunately for him, however, online media outlets republished the report with an embellished headline designed to attract readership and attention: “Academic calls for ‘breathing tax’, 20 yuan per person per month to protect the environment”.

I have to admire the editor who came up with this idea of a “breathing tax”. As clever as it may be, however, the contribution of our respiration to total CO2 emissions is minute compared to other sources of greenhouse-gas emissions, such as cars, industry and power generation. The phrase “breathing tax” has only misled and angered the public, as there would be no way to escape such a tax. Clearly, this is not what Jiang intended.

What he actually proposed was a fund to which citizens could contribute voluntarily, with the proceeds used to plant forests and offset carbon emissions. In fact, China already has something similar – the China Green Carbon Fund, launched by the State Forestry Administration and the China Green Foundation.

Founded in July 2007, the China Green Carbon Fund is a national public investment scheme which does not, and cannot, force the public to donate on a monthly basis. It aims to provide a platform for businesses, groups and individuals to participate in climate-change mitigation measures such as tree-planting, forest creation and forest management. The China National Petroleum Corporation made the first donation of 300 million yuan (US$44 million).

Of course, some say that Jiang’s “20 yuan per person per month” is no different from an environmental tax and argue that he has not considered the varying responsibilities for emissions between China’s rich and poor. However, Jiang is one of the 12 members of the National Climate Change Expert Committee — a climate change think tank – and undoubtedly is aware of the divide between rich and poor in China. How could he suggest collecting the same level of emissions tax from all?

If he had suggested such a thing, then perhaps the abuse he has received was not undeserved. However, the question remains: did the media accurately and objectively report his actual speech?

To an extent, the fuss over the “breathing tax” reflects both sloppy reporting and a lack of in-depth knowledge regarding climate change among Chinese media workers.

But more importantly, the whole story demonstrates the chasm that separates scientists, the news media and the public. China’s press has a lot of work to do on reporting accurately about climate change.


Li Taige is a Beijing-based journalist. He obtained a master’s degree in engineering from Sichuan University in 1997 and was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003-04.

Homepage photo by Stitch