Bill adds carbon tariff on foreign goods

Smoke pours from the smokestacks of an industrial plant.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Barack Obama rode last night's big news back into Washington today. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee swung by his place of employment to vote for a draft federal budget -- $3 trillion worth of spending recommendations that he is really hoping he'll have to deal with come January.

Elsewhere on the legislative calendar, the Senate's debating climate change this week -- the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act it's called. It's a bill that would drastically reduce the nation's carbon footprint by putting a cap on greenhouse gas emissions and then letting big polluters buy and sell the rights to pollute more if they needed to.

Cap and trade's a market-based approach, but the U.S. market would stop at the border thanks to a provision buried deep in that bill's fine print.

Sam Eaton's covering the story for us.

Hey Sam.

Sam Eaton: Hi Kai.

Ryssdal: Now it's your job to read these things at the Sustainability Desk for us, so what is this provision all about?

Eaton: Kai, it's essentially a carbon tariff.

Ryssdal: Alright, wait; a carbon huh?

Eaton: A carbon tariff, Kai. It's a less complicated way of saying international reserve allowances, but simply put, we're talking about a border tax on goods from countries that don't have a cap on CO2 emissions.

Ryssdal: Alright, so put this into context for me. What does it mean?

Eaton: Well, the idea here, Kai, is that business is global. A cap on greenhouse gas emissions here in the U.S. adds cost to things like U.S. manufacturing, so how do you keep those manufacturers from basically picking up their roots and going to places like China which don't have a cap on their CO2 emissions?

Ryssdal: So, in practice, how would this apply?

Eaton: Well, the aim here is to level the playing field so that these countries like China, say, India, Brazil, don't have what's called an unfair advantage, trade advantage. An example would be, say, a TV set made in China, Kai. Say a ton of CO2 emissions were created during the manufacturing process for that. If you sell that TV in the U.S., Kai, and carbon is trading at, say, $35 a ton, you'd basically impose a $35 fee on every TV set sold from China in the U.S.

Ryssdal: I'm imagining that since it's buried so deep in this 1,000 or 2,000 page climate change bill that it's a fairly controversial provision.

Eaton: It's very controversial, Kai. First of all, it's not even clear whether it's legal. World Trade Organization rules typically frown on any trade barriers of any kind. Free trade advocates call it protectionism masquerading as environmentalism. The U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab went so far as to call it "a blunt and imprecise instrument of fear." Now the worry here, Kai, is that politics will trump commerce and these rules will be used to protect inefficient U.S. manufacturers, not solve the climate crisis.

Ryssdal: What we have then, just to make sure I understand this, is the Senate of the Untied States turning this bipartisan climate change bill into a piece of trade legislation?

Eaton: Exactly, and if that happens, the argument goes, less trade with these developing countries could lead to less money that would go to things like cleaner technologies which could then clean up their emissions and, you know, resolve what is essentially an international problem and not just a domestic one.

Ryssdal: Alright Sam, thanks a lot.

Eaton: Thanks Kai.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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