Chinese steel is cheap, but its production is also more carbon-intensive and has less pollution controls placed upon it than elsewhere. It would likely not be so cheap if all the environmental costs were internalized into its price. Photo: Erik Charlton via flickr
At the climate change talks in Bonn, Germany, in addition to calling for rich nations to increase commitments to greenhouse gas emission reductions, poorer nations raised concerns that talk of putting tariffs on products from nations which have lax pollution controls, carbon emission reduction strategies and poorer energy efficiency amounted to protectionism: Chinese, India Steel & Saudi Oil Exports Could be Hurt
Reuters summed up the concerns,
...developing country steel exporters, such as China, India or South Africa, risked trade penalties since their factories were less efficient and emitted more greenhouse gases than those in developed nations. Saudi Arabia also fears that oil exports will suffer from a shift to renewable energies.
Since the idea in putting some sort of tariff on carbon-intensive industries is to encourage greater energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions no matter where they are coming from—and let's remember that climate change is indeed a global problem, with the environmental effects not being contained within any nation's borders—if those efficiency improvements are not made, then yes, nations could suffer. But not acting to reduce the carbon intensity of industrial activities, not matter where they occur, will also cause suffering (probably even greater...).
The crucial thing here then is to indeed penalize carbon-intensive industries, but also offer assistance in making the transition towards decreased carbon intensity. In that transition period, perhaps if improvements are in progress and verified, then carbon tariffs could be waived to ease the impact. In the future though, internalizing the environmental costs of carbon emissions must be done in all nations.
(I find it laughable that Saudi Arabia is trying to latch onto this issue. Does anyone know if the owners of slave ships tried to fight abolition on the economic grounds that their livelihood was at stake?)
Eco-Labeling Could Hurt International Agricultural Exports
Reuters went on to says that,
Several developing countries said that developed nations schemes for "eco-labeling" -- marking goods with the amount of greenhouse gasses used to produce them -- could discourage exports of products such as Kenyan flowers of Chilean apples that are flown or shipped over long distances.
Yes, that is the point. All of the currently externalized environmental costs associated with the production of these goods are incorporated into their price—as it should with all goods. We can no longer afford to pass off these costs onto the planet, our neighbors, and some fictional 'away over there'.
It could very well be that in the overall production of either of the agricultural products in the Reuters quote, the greatest portion of the carbon emissions associated with their production is not shipping them from Africa or South American, but the chemical fertilizers used to grow them. Switching to organic production could cancel out any tariff placed on the carbon-intensity of their transport. (Just speculating there; I haven't looked at Kenyan flowers or Chilean apples' carbon footprint...)
All Nations Must Work Together in Shift Towards a Post-Carbon Global Economy
Climate change is going to hit everyone, and those people least able to deal with the effects in the medium-to-long term are some of the same people who could hit worst by carbon tariffs slapped on goods in the short term. So, as with industrial activities, we need to work together to smooth the transition by enabling green technology transfer from wealthy nations to poorer nations, and offering whatever assistance is required.
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