Sunday, July 5, 2009

The U.S. Plays Chicken with the BRICs

. Sunday, July 5, 2009

A few days ago, Dr. Oatley wrote about the attempt by the U.S. House of Representatives to cap greenhouse emissions and coerce other countries into doing the same:

This time it is the Waxman-Markey cap and trade legislation. The intent of the legislation--reduce greenhouse gases--addresses concerns of the Democrats' median voter, who cares deeply about climate change. Producers, however, are concerned that the higher energy costs generated by cap and trade will disadvantage them relative to Chinese firms who are not facing higher energy costs because China does not regulate greenhouse gases. The solution, added late to the legislation, is to impose tariffs on goods from countries that do not regulate GHG (i.e., China). Nobody really wants to impose tariffs, but the hope is that the threat of tariffs will be sufficient to induce China to agree to international regulations on CO2 emissions.

This realist view is often borne out in the politics of international regulations. But in this case it is difficult to see whether the U.S. has the muscle to coerce China (and others) into adopting the U.S.-preferred strategy. Krugman loves it, but the push-back from China and India has already begun:

The Chinese government also said it believed the carbon tax proposal violated the principle set out in the Kyoto protocol that developed and developing countries should respond to climate change together but with different responsibilities. “[It] severely harms developing countries’ interests,” Mr Yao said.

The WTO report, which gave a cautious nod to carbon tariffs, was prepared by the organisation’s secretariat, which can advise and facilitate discussion among the WTO’s members but does not set the rules itself. If a government such as China’s challenged such taxes, the case would be decided by the WTO’s dispute settlement system – panels of independent trade experts and lawyers.

Some trade lawyers point out that past WTO decisions have permitted governments to restrict trade in order to protect natural resources. But others say the case law is patchy, and it is hard to prove that such measures are being applied in a fair and consistent manner – a necessary condition for meeting WTO rules.

And the Indians have quite a point:

With 1.1bn people – roughly a sixth of the world’s population – India has one of the lowest per capita emission levels, with 1.2 tonnes per head, about 4.6 per cent of total global emissions. “India has not polluted – we are bearing the brunt of global climate change caused by the developed countries and we are being asked to curb emissions,” he said. “I find this ludicrous.”

However, India’s carbon emissions are expected to rise sharply in the future, especially as the country tries to meet its power deficit through the rapid development of generating capacity. India uses about 450m tonnes of highly-polluting coal for power generation each year, a figure that Mr Ramesh said would rise to about 1bn tonnes in less than a decade.

“There is no running away from our karma – without coal, we have no economic future,” he said.

That last sentence is the crux: India and China will not yield because they cannot. They can credibly commit to hurt U.S. consumers and producers in retaliation (in this case, retaliation could be as simple as accepting reduced economic gains from trade; of course, they could also slap retaliatory tariffs or simply stop buying U.S. bonds). So the question is whether the U.S. thinks that the environmental gains from carbon tariffs will out-weigh the economic costs of a trade war during a nasty recession. More specifically, does the president and the 60th most-progressive senator think so? So far, Obama has indicated that he is not interested in playing chicken with the Chinese.

From my seat (nowhere near the table), it appears that the provision will be stripped from the Senate version of the bill, and/or the bill will not pass. The costs to American consumers of challenging China and India (and Canada) have already become too great. That could change if the U.S., E.U., Japan, and others make a concerted stand against the BRICs, but that would allow the BRICs to accuse the rich world of preventing the development of some of the world's poorest people in order to fulfill their pet preferences. And they would be right.

Addendum: China may have actually started the trade war over a month ago.


The U.S. Plays Chicken with the BRICs




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