The EU published a whole raft of additional climate policies on July 14th with its long-awaited “Fit for 55” package to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050. It included its most contentious plank – the carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM). On July 19th, US Democrat legislators introduced a similar bill to tax imported goods for their carbon content sourced from countries that lack strict environmental policies. Details on the US proposal are scant, with one leading newspaper article stating that the US would “require companies that want to sell steel, iron, and other goods to the United States to pay a price for every ton of carbon dioxide that is emitted during their manufacturing processes. If countries can’t or won’t do that, the United States could impose its own price.”
It would seem that the Nordhaus climate club has become the policy vehicle of choice for advocates of the “climate emergency” on both sides of the Atlantic.
Why The Climate Club
On the face of it, the climate club’s logic is straightforward enough. It is to replace the earlier flawed architectures of the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Agreement (2015) which were voluntary international agreements to reduce carbon emissions. To mitigate the problem of ‘free riders’ that inevitably emerge with such agreements, the climate club would establish an incentive structure that penalized nations that did not play by the rules.
The EU and the US want to impose trade tariffs to bring the cost of carbon-dioxide emissions caused by the manufacture of an imported good into alignment with what a domestic producer would pay to produce the same good. European and American companies are less competitive because they have to pay for their emissions while foreign companies that export to them don’t. Thus rules to reduce emissions will encourage companies in the West to “offshore” their production to developing countries which have less onerous restrictions on emissions, a process known as “carbon leakage”. Brussels and Washington, it is claimed, merely intend to “level the playing field”. Of course the question arises, whose playing field?
The European Commission will initially apply the CBAM to imports from energy intensive sectors including iron and steel, aluminium, cement, fertilisers and electricity, coming into force from January 2026. An analysis by a bank found that Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, India and China will be amongst the most impacted by the CBAM. The complexity of the Brussels-concocted plan ensures that exporters to the EU will have their work cut out for them. Exporting firms will have to document detailed carbon audits on their emissions which would include calculating the percentage of emissions that are already covered by carbon taxes elsewhere (domestic and for imports which go into manufacturing the exports). If these complex and expensive analyses are beyond the compliance capabilities of firms, especially for small and medium-sized businesses, the EC will unilaterally establish carbon tariffs on the basis of the dirtiest 10% of European producers of the same good.
The Climate Club’s Detractors
On July 26th, China opened its first defensive salvo against the EU’s plan to impose the world's first carbon border tax, stating that it intruded climate issues into international trading norms, broke WTO rules and undermined prospects for economic growth. Earlier in April when it became apparent that both the EU and the US Biden administration were considering extra-territorial and unilateral policies to enforce upon the world their own predilections to “fight climate change”, India also adopted a position similar to China’s. It issued a joint statement with the BASIC bloc — Brazil, South Africa, India and China — calling CBAM “discriminatory“ and expressing its “ grave concern”.
Detractors of the climate club – a club which threatens to be both exclusive and punitive for non-members — point out that carbon border taxes are contrary to the UN climate body’s Article 4. This refers to “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities”, an established feature of climate change negotiations since the UN’s first Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
Last week, at the G20 on climate change and energy, India cited this long-standing equitable principle in countering the “net zero by 2050” target backed by the EU, US, the UN climate body and other rich country-dominated multilateral agencies such as the IEA, the World Bank and the IMF. India’s environment minister Bhupender Yadav said that “…given the legitimate need of developing countries to grow, we urge G20 countries to commit to bring down per capita emissions to global average by 2030”.
While the global average is 6.5 tons per capita of CO2-equivalent, India emits just below 2 tons while the US emits 17.6 tons and Germany 10.4 tons. India asserted that as the rich countries have already “consumed” most of the available “carbon space” in the atmospheric sink since the Industrial Revolution, the “net zero by 2050” target is inadequate.
The detractors are not limited to developing countries. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the proposed carbon tariff plan “trade protection by another name”. Russia, like China, sees the CBAM as running foul of WTO rules and had already made clear its views a year ago when the EU was mooting its Green Deal plans which included carbon tariffs.
Problems With The Climate Club
Apart from the UN climate body’s Article 4, there are areas in which the proposed carbon tariffs may conflict with WTO trading rules. They may be found to contravene the WTO’s rule of non‐discrimination, a mainstay of international trading norms which requires that any advantage granted to the imported products of one WTO member must be accorded immediately and unconditionally to like products originating from all other WTO members. Carbon tariffs could also be inconsistent with the WTO’s ‘ national treatment rule’, another foundation stone of modern international trade under the WTO regime which requires that imported products be given “no less favourable” treatment than that given to like domestic products. If European producers continue to receive free emissions allowances (as they do now under the EU’s Emission Trading System), then the EU will be found in violation of the “national treatment” rule.
It would seem that the putative rich-country climate club members are headed for an impasse with the rest of the world in the rules of international trade that have broadly prevailed since the Second World War. On the one hand, we have somewhat less that 20% of the world’s population represented by policy elites that are convinced that the “science is settled” and a “climate crisis” is upon us. On the other, we have the vast majority of the world’s population – over 6 billion — newly emerged from wretched poverty in recent decades or desperately trying to. For those beginning to enjoy — or at least having a fighting chance to taste — the fruits of economic growth and technological progress across Asia, Africa and Latin America, their worries are less to do with concerns of the carbon footprint of economic growth as much as ensuring that economic growth will re-emerge after the devastation brought on by the Covid pandemic lockdowns.
But there is a final twist. The Western policy elites, convinced by climate models that purportedly predict dire climate conditions decades into the future, seem to be facing the constraints of democracy in their own backyards. After Switzerland dropped its negotiations with the EU, the country rejected a climate-protection law in a referendum last month. The referendum rejected all three parts of the law in separate votes: on CO2, on pesticides, and on drinking water. Two days ago, UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, facing an increasing backlash from constituents over soaring heating costs with his plans to ban gas boilers in British homes in favour of expensive new-fangled heat pumps, delayed his government’s plans by 5 years to 2040.
For Europe, the greatest lesson of mass politics against climate change polices supported by metropolitan elites was the gilet jaune protests that was triggered by fuel taxes. As one acute observer put it, “The French love a good riot, but the political backlash to the French government’s plans to increase carbon taxes on fuel could be a harbinger of what’s to come in countries committed to the global warming crusade”.
It is no surprise then that a senior economist at Deutsche Bank, one of Europe’s largest banks, warned that for the EU’s Green Deal to succeed, “a certain degree of eco-dictatorship will be necessary”.
The climate club’s detractors have the tide of history on their side.