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Talk of Carbon Tariff Upsets China and Worries Climate Experts

By Elizabeth Balkan

Apr 3, 2009
Barcodes - US, China

One day after China’s top climate official, Li Gao, requested that his country’s from greenhouse gas emissions reductions, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the possibility of levying a carbon tariff on countries that do not match U.S. emissions restrictions.

Chu told a House science panel that such could "”.

That statement heard 'round the Beltway signaled a growing uneasiness among politicians that the costs imposed by future climate change laws could put U.S. businesses at a competitive disadvantage and send energy-intensive industries fleeing the United States for countries that don’t have similar restrictions.

The implications both worry climate experts and raise the specter of a trade war, a fear that U.S. officials meeting with their international counterparts in Europe this week have been trying to diffuse.

Climate scientists fear that uncoordinated greenhouse gas reduction efforts will result in – the increase in greenhouse gas emissions in one country as a result of a decrease in another – which would simply redistribute rather than reduce climate changing emissions.

In politics, however, economics is a powerful motivator.

Playing to Win

Immediately after Chu's statement, China’s head climate change and coordinating committee member, Xie Zhenhua, flatly rejected the U.S. energy secretary's suggestion as "an ."

China’s state-run media followed by accusing the U.S. of . Chinese officials emphasized the measures they were taking to fight climate change, and they reiterated their conviction that the U.S. and other developed countries that consume Chinese exports are responsible for emissions attached to those goods.

The Chinese were not alone in their dissent. Free trade-oriented organizations in the U.S., such as the , warned that a carbon tariff on carbon-intensive imports would provoke a trade war and contravene .

Among U.S. industries, the response was mixed.

The U.S. steel lobby called for sanctions against their Chinese rivals, reinvigorating a long-standing political economy debate over international conditions affecting U.S. steel competitiveness. Senior Vice President of U.S. Steel Corp. was among industry representatives who voiced support for a carbon tariff.

The , which in the past has accused China of unfair trade measures to protect its steel and other industries, issued a report released last week that took China to task on weak enforcement of environmental regulations and a domestic steel industry that requires as much as twice the carbon per ton of steel as U.S. counterparts. Though the report's tone was one of disapproval, it stopped short of calling for import tariffs.

Taking a more constructive approach, the AAM instead called on the federal government, U.S. engineers and industry leaders to help China develop low-carbon techniques.

Finding Common Ground

This week, Washington officials in Bonn for and at the G20 summit in London tried to diffuse the escalating tension.

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