China slaps tax on chopsticks to save trees

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China will tax wooden chopsticks, golf balls and the yachts of the country's nouveau riche as part of an ambitious plan to slash energy consumption and combat worsening pollution in the world's fastest growing economy.

The new taxes, which come into force on 1 April, are aimed at boosting the use of environmentally friendy small-engined cars and motorcycles while slapping hefty new levies on luxury items such as gas-guzzling four-wheel drive vehicles and flashy watches.

The tax on chopsticks will come as a shock to a nation which uses them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and where many people have never used a knife and fork. The Chinese use 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks every year, which adds up to 1.7 million cubic metres of timber or 25 million fully grown trees.

Massive demand for wood takes a heavy toll on the country's forests. In Beijing, deforestation has removed a natural wind barrier between the desert and the Chinese capital, and the wasteland is only hours away from the north of the city. Springtime brings sandstorms and people don masks and scarves against the dusty wind. But with so much pollution in the air from ever-more cars on the road and incessant building on every street corner, the annual sandstorms have taken on a toxic new aspect.

The government has had some success with an ambitious plan to plant millions of trees around the capital, but the new "green" taxes are recognition that something more fundamental needs to be done.

The reforms are part of Beijing's latest Five-Year Plan, passed this month by the Communist Party at the country's annual parliament, which pledged to move the nation to a more sustainable growth model with less environmental degradation and greater social equity.

Wooden floor panels, a central interior design component in many Chinese homes, will also be levied from 1 April, the Finance Ministry said. There will also be tax on baijiu, a schnapps-like liquor with a kick like a mule that is popular at boozy banquets. The taxes will also affect kerosene, which could have an impact on cheap flights within China.

China's first foray into "green taxation" is a sign of growing government awareness that GDP (gross domestic product) growth is not the only yardstick for success and that China's dire environmental record can feed into political discord.

President Hu Jintao refers to "environmentally sustainable development" in speeches about harnessing economic growth better to distribute the country's new riches.

China's environment is getting steadily worse. The World Bank says 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China and more than 400,000 people die prematurely each year from pollution-related illnesses. Environmental experts fear pollution levels in China could more than quadruple within 15 years if the country does not curb its rapid growth in energy consumption and massive growth in car ownership.

Where once the bicycle reigned supreme, the car now rules. China has 107 million cars and 116 million drivers, while the bicycle, long an icon of China, has been relegated to a second-class mode of transport.

The country is the second-biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions and is soon expected to overtake the United States as the biggest. Roughly a third of China is exposed to acid rain and about 70 per cent of the country's rivers and lakes are polluted.

The government has pledged to have a "green" Olympics when the Games come to Beijing in 2008 and there are also plans to blacklist cities that fail to reach the national air quality standard. But balancing the need for strong economic growth and the desire for a healthy environment is a challenge for the rulers.

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