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|In the wake of the failed climate
change summit in Copenhagen, countries are talking about imposing
carbon tariffs on imports. Bad idea, say trade experts.
was on a roll. At the Copenhagen climate summit, the former US
presidential candidate delivered a fiery speech that was mostly
directed at China. If the US has to accept binding targets for
reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, then Beijing must do the
same, Kerry told his audience. Workers in the US should not "lose
their jobs to India and China because those countries are not
participating in a way that is measurable, reportable and
verifiable," he said.
This was an expression of the old fear in industrialized countries
that aggressive action on climate change could lead to local
economic disadvantages. Environmentalist politicians and academics
have long been calling for the establishment of a global emissions
trade. It is a simple and captivating idea for many: Each state gets
a certain amount of CO2 allowances. Those who want to emit more must
buy emissions rights from other countries that emit less CO2.
Ideally, poorer countries would automatically make money, and rich
countries would at the same time have a financial incentive to
reduce their CO2 emissions.
However, such a system would only work if all states
participated—and industrialized countries for years have feared that
just won't happen. In particular, large emerging economies like
China and India could blow off climate protection and give their
businesses competitive advantages in the global market. The failure
to reach an international climate change agreement in Copenhagen has
done little dampen such worries.
Kerry and Sarkozy Threaten China and India
Now, Western politicians are getting more open with threats to make
the most CO2-intensive imports more expensive—with the help of
punitive tariffs. If the West protects the environment, Senator
Kerry said in Copenhagen, then climate sinners will not "dump high
carbon intensity products into our markets." Kerry's thinly veiled
threat: In this case, "I speak for the United States." According to
a report in the New York Times, the Americans even tried to
accommodate the possibility of unilateral penalties in the final
document out of Copenhagen, but without success.
Yet such sentiments in Europe are getting louder, particularly in
Paris. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly called for EU
punitive tariffs on products from big emitters, should no agreement
come from Copenhagen. Now that this has occurred, the question is
how serious Sarkozy is about the issue. He had said that the French
were working together with Germany on such plans. A German
government spokesperson said Berlin was examining ways in which
locational disadvantages for business could be prevented.
The response sound reserved, but was still much more positive than
earlier statements made by government officials in Germany.
Previously, the Germans had always categorically rejected Sarkozy's
punitive tariff idea. Even in July, Matthias Machnig, then a state
secretary in the Environment Ministry, described Sarkozy's proposals
China Will Remain the Workbench of the World
Experts, however, warn strongly against eco-punitive tariffs. Ottmar
Edenhofer, environmental economist at the Potsdam Institute for
Climate Impact Research (PIK), sees them as more of a threat than a
realistic option. Measured by the carbon dioxide emissions incurred
in the production of goods, China is undisputedly the world's
largest emitter of CO2. Punitive duties would hardly change that.
"An adjustment of tariffs would likely never be high enough to
substantially alter the demand in the West for goods from China,"
says Edenhofer. "China will remain the workbench of the world."
Punitive tariffs would therefore have almost no environmental
impact, but would come with enormous risks. On one hand, the
decrease in imports from China would likely weaken the US economy.
"In addition, the Chinese could respond with counter-measures, of
course," says Edenhofer told SPIEGEL ONLINE. China could—in
theory—squander US Treasury securities and make the country's
Such a conflict would hardly be in the interests of either of
these big global powers, since their economies are so closely
intertwined. For example, China is currently financing the US twin
deficits of a giant budget hole and a gap in the current
accounting—the result of the United States importing far more goods
and services than it exports. China, however, has a huge trade
surplus. "Cooperation between the US and China is the only way,"
says Edenhofer. "A trade war is the last thing they need at the
The climate summit in Copenhagen has shown, Edenhofer says, that the
world still has to find its new geopolitical balance. "China steered
away from the concert of the developing countries and presented
itself in Copenhagen as a confident, cool negotiating world power,"
says the economist. Beijing has proven that it can derail a global
agreement on climate protection. According to Edenhofer, "the
showdown between the US and China has only just begun."
Legal Obstacles to Climate Tariff
Added to the economic risks of punitive tariffs are the legal
problems. Environmentalists often complain that the World Trade
Organization (WTO) has disqualified ecological tariffs as
unjustified obstacles to trade. This is mainly due to an iron-clad
principle of international trade law: equal treatment. "Identical
goods must be treated equally," Christian Tietje, international law
expert from the University of Halle, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
It is irrelevant whether a cell phone was produced in an
environmentally friendly, but more expensive manner in Germany—or in
a less ecological and less expensive manner in China. This also
applies to climate protection. The lawyer says that solving the
problem with extra taxes is "highly problematic in terms of
international trade law."
A classic WTO dispute case from the 1990s shows just how high the
barriers to trade tariffs in the name of environmental protection
can be. The United States had imposed an import ban on shrimp from
countries that were not concerned enough about protecting sea
turtles. The basis for this was an American nature conservation law
called the Endangered Species Act.
The Americans argued that the animals could be protected only
through the use of certain nets with special exits for the turtles.
Fishing fleets that did not use these should therefore be subject to
the boycott. India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Thailand brought a
complaint to the WTO—and initially won.
A WTO court declared that the US measures were not justified—after
all, the US had not made enough of an effort to conclude agreements
to protect the turtles with the states concerned. The WTO would only
have allowed a boycott only after serious and appropriate
negotiations had been held and had failed.
Wiggle Room in Trade Law
In the case of climate change, Tietje argues that this situation has
not yet been reached—despite the debacle at the Copenhagen summit.
"The serious efforts have not yet completely failed," he says. There
is, after all, a final document and the timetable for further
negotiations. They will begin in 2010 at the ministerial level in
Bonn, and later go back to the heads of state and government in
Some international lawyers, however, see a window of opportunity
with targeted interventions in the world trading system to bring the
worst polluters to reason—or at least bring them back to the
negotiating table. When it comes to a few particularly
environmentally damaging products such as steel, it is possible to
imagine punitive tarrifs, says Thomas Cottier, head of the World
Trade Institute in Berne. "Legally speaking, this is possible," he
says. That would mean tariffs would be reduced, for example, for
"We are coming into a phase, where individual countries can try it
out, and see how far they can or want to go," Cottier told SPIEGEL
ONLINE. Wiggle room in trade law is not as tight as it is often
claimed. The use of such measures is "more a political question."
It is clear, however, that the possible environmental penalties
would be directed mainly against developing countries. This is not
unproblematic. The industrialized world must now ask itself the
fundamental question of what products they want to continue to
produce abroad—where the price of labor may be low, but the price
the environment pays is often too high.