Anti-Shirking Import Penalties in US Climate Change Bills Could Backfire

So both the Democratic and Republicans have officially nominated their candidates.  Remarkably — from the vantage point of just a few years ago – both Senators McCain and Obama are on record as supporting strong action for aggressive cuts in US emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs).   In June 2008, the floor manager’s version of the Lieberman-Warner bill  – S. 2192: America’s Climate Security Act of 2007, which would cut emissions more than 50% by 2050 — came close to passing the Senate.   Some think that with the likely Democratic gain in Senate seats in November, and a more supportive White House, a form of the bill may well pass next year.

(Incidentally, the July Snowmass presentations regarding Integrated Assessment models of the effects of such emission-reduction policy plans, which I plugged in my preceding blog post, will be accessible to the public any day now.)

But issues of competitiveness and how to address it have risen to the top in the climate change policy debate among politicians.      The Lieberman-Warner bill – would have required the president to determine what countries have taken comparable action to limit GHG emissions;  for imports of covered goods from covered countries, the importer would then have had to buy international reserve allowances – equivalent to a tariff.  (The same with some of the bill’s competitors such as the Bingaman-Specter “Low Carbon Economy Act” of 2007.)

In theory, there is a possible legitimate role for border adjustments in facilitating a multilateral regime such as the Kyoto Protocol.  One might think of penalties on carbon-intensive imports:

1.      as sanctions to apply pressure on non-participants,

2.      as a calibrated “countervailing duty” to equalize a distortion that will otherwise see carbon-intensive activities migrate to less-regulated countries (a phenomenon known as leakage)   or

3.      as political reassurance to domestic firms worried about their international competitiveness.

If designed properly, they need not necessarily be inconsistent with the WTO (World Trade Organization).    There are precedents, most importantly (and most ironically) the famous/infamous shrimp/turtle case.

But U.S. politicians are unlikely to do it properly.   They may be unaware that the US is more likely to end up as the target of such tariffs than as the enactor – to end up as the defendant, rather than as the prosecutor.   The European Union is way ahead of us in cutting back GHG emissions under the Kyoto protocol, and its EC Directive earlier this year had similar language calling for penalties aimed at shirking competitors.   That’s us.  The difference between their provisions for dealing with shirkers and ours is that their system is already in operation, while for the time being, we are the shirkers.  So US politicians had better look before they leap on this one.

The Brookings Institution had a conference in June that was well-focused on this set of policy issues, organized by Lael Brainard.  Interested readers can link to the papers at Climate Change, Trade and Competitiveness: Is a Collision Inevitable ?    Mine was titled  “Addressing the Leakage/Competitiveness Issue In Climate Change Policy Proposals,” in the panel on Proposals to Deal with Leakages.

The issues are reminiscent of larger fears on the part of anti-globalizers — that the WTO and free trade are obstacles to environmental regulation more generally — fears that I think are largely misplaced.   With well-designed multilateral policies, we can work to protect the global environment while simultaneously preserving the economic advantages of free trade.

I am also working on a broader project to address the design of climate change policy architecture as part of the HPICA initiative at Harvard directed by Joe Aldy and Rob Stavins.

Originally published at Jeff Frankel’s Weblog and reproduced here with the author’s permission.