China faces trade war climate
challenge By Robert Collier
China in recent months has taken center
stage in the international debate over global
warming. It has surpassed the United States as the
world's largest source of greenhouse gases, and it
became developing nations' diplomatic champion at
the recent United Nations climate negotiations in
Bali. Now China may become the target of a
full-fledged trade war that could destroy, or
perhaps rescue, the chances of bringing rich and
poor nations together to fight global warming.
The focus on China intensified late last
year, when data from the International Energy
Agency and other research organizations revealed
that China had overtaken the United States as the
largest source of greenhouse gases, and, more
emissions are growing at a rate that exceeds all
wealthy nations' capacity to decrease theirs. Even
if China met its own targets for energy
conservation, its emissions would increase by
about 2.3 billion tonnes over the next five years,
far larger than the 1.7 billion tonnes in cutbacks
imposed by the Kyoto Protocol on the 37 developed
"Annex 1" countries, including the United States.
After the inconclusive end of the UN-led
Bali talks on the global environment, worry has
grown among US and European industries -
especially iron, steel, cement, glass, chemicals,
and pulp and paper - that any new climate treaty
would put them at a big disadvantage against their
fast-growing competitors in China.
response, the US Congress is moving to create a
system of trade sanctions that would levy heavy
taxes on imports from other major greenhouse gas
emitters. Ironically, the American plan is taking
shape even before the US takes any action to
reduce its own emissions, inviting charges of
hypocrisy, violation of international law, and
threatening a major trade war.
proposal, contained in the central piece of global
warming legislation now before Congress, would
impose emission controls on domestic industries
starting in 2012. It would also levy punitive
tariffs on greenhouse-gas-intensive products
imported from countries that lack "comparable
action" to that of the US, starting in 2020.
Industrial lobbies and labor unions are pushing
hard for these sanctions to take effect more
European Commission president
Jose Manuel Barroso, French President Nicolas
Sarkozy and industrial chambers of commerce
strongly advocate a similar tariff system, leading
many analysts to predict that the EU will also
adopt some sort of green tariff system in the next
Warning of an "all-out trade
war" if the sanctions go forward, US Trade
Representative Susan Schwab argues that green
trade sanctions would violate World Trade
Organization rules. In a recent letter to the
House Energy and Commerce Committee, she wrote,
"We believe this approach could be a blunt and
imprecise instrument of fear, rather than one of
persuasion, that will take us down a dangerous
path and adversely impact US manufacturers,
farmers, and consumers."
nations' allies, meanwhile, are warning that the
sanctions plan could destroy the chances of a
post-Kyoto treaty. Chinese diplomats have not
responded directly, but they have noticeably
hardened their stand on climate talks. In
February, China's top climate negotiator, Yu
Qingtai, said at the UN that rich nations, which
"caused the problem of climate change in the first
place," must be treated as "culprits" and
developing countries as "victims".
China's official hard line, some Chinese
environmental officials privately express alarm at
runaway carbon emissions and suggest that foreign
green tariffs would actually strengthen their hand
in domestic policy struggles over controlling
greenhouse gases by helping to win political
support for emissions cuts.
Pan Yue, vice
director of the State Environmental Protection
Administration, recently argued in a China Daily
article in favor of stronger emissions regulations
and a more "green-oriented China", warning that
"China's image among the international community"
was in jeopardy.
The growing dispute over
trade sanctions brings to the fore not only the
fundamental ethical question of whether wealthy
nations should bear the burden of emissions
reduction alone but also the strategic question of
whether sticks as well as carrots should be used
to induce green behavior in developing countries.
Although China may not like it, the
international trading system may provide more
leverage than any other post-Kyoto mechanism over
developing countries' environmental policies.
Despite the threat of trade wars, trade sanctions
could emerge as the most effective means of
forcing international action on global warming.
a visiting scholar at the Center for Environmental
Public Policy at the University of California at
Berkeley, is writing a book about China and global
warming. He has been with the San Francisco
Chronicle from 1991 to the present as a senior
foreign affairs correspondent (since 2002), a
member of the editorial board (2001-2002), and a
foreign affairs reporter (1994–2001).
(Copyright 2008 Project Syndicate.
Published with permission of the Global Policy
program at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in