Saturday, July 21, 2018


An opportunity to introduce a rational and positive element to retaliatory measures.

Trump’s USA seems to be hell-bent on destroying every element of the pre-Trump international order, the WTO, presumptions in favour of free trade, and US participation in the Paris accord on climate. But a recent piece in Nature magazine proposes a neat way of turning some of this to a climate policy advantage.

The recent tit-for-tat on punitive tariffs has been based first and foremost either on targeting industries that are the source of the grievance, notably steel in the case of Trump, or products where the retaliatory tariff will cause pain in the USA, famously Harley Davidson.

The novel suggestion however is that the prospect of a global trade war provides an opportunity for the introduction of tariffs that, unlike many forms of trade barrier, can be considered to be almost unequivocally beneficial in their effect on human welfare. The suggestion is a simple one. Place the retaliatory tax on the products with the highest carbon footprint, relative to the alternatives of domestic production. Indirectly this will also counter at least to a small degree the environmentally reckless policies Trump and the Republican party are promoting at home.

Ideally of course this should be part of a wider set of agreements on effective carbon pricing, but “border carbon adjustments”, or BCA, clearly have a lot going for them. Nor is the idea new or without political support. “In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron called them ‘indispensable’ for European climate leadership, and Canadian environment minister Catherine McKenna recommended closer scrutiny. Mexico included them in its Paris pledge” according to the Nature article. The US House of Representatives backed a similar approach in the Waxman–Markey Bill in 2009, but the bill failed to reach a vote in the Senate.[1]

Wholesale implementation, by the EU for example, of such an approach on a global basis would have a number of technical difficulties, but its examination in the context of retaliatory tariffs could provide some interesting outcomes. It would of course tend to hit those states in the USA that are most keen to protect their coal industries. As it happens that includes a number with a strong Republican base.

The other advantage is that what starts as a rather crude device, and as part of a trade war, could also evolve over time to become a significant component of mainstream decarbonisation policy.

[1] California, it is claimed,  has  introduced a version of  BCAs but this is confined to its energy market.

No comments: