A nationwide carbon-trading scheme, to be set up in 2017, is the most visible example of a broader trend in China towards using market mechanisms in environmental matters…[A] reform plan issued by the government on September 21st, 2015 laying out the basis of future policy, talks about developing “a market system which allows economic levers to play a greater role in environmental governance”. If the plan is to be believed, China will go further than any other country in developing environmental market mechanisms.
The plan talks of selling “green” bonds, ie, those financing projects certified as environmentally sound. The government will improve financial guarantees for low-carbon projects. But those are becoming common. More fundamentally, the reform says China will separate the ownership of all natural resources from the rights to use them—and sell the usage rights at market.
This is much more radical. The idea is rooted in communist dogma, which says all natural resources—land, rivers, minerals and so on—are collectively owned. The reform plan begins by calling for a massive Domesday-like inventory of who owns what, whether central government, provincial governments or lower tiers. It then says, with utter insouciance, that “with the exception of natural resources which are ecologically important [eg, national parks], the ownership rights and use rights for all other natural resources can be separated”. And, having separated them, the usage rights can be bought and sold, rented out, used as collateral or as the basis of loan guarantees, and so on.
The carbon-trading scheme suggests what this could mean in practice. It is like a market in energy-usage rights, with the carbon treated as part of the cost of using fossil fuels. A market in water rights will also be set up. Trials will be held in Gansu and Ningxia, two north-western provinces. The plan talks cryptically of setting up a “natural resource asset exchange”.
Excerpts from Markets and the environment: Domesday scenario, Economist, Oct. 3, 2015, at 46