'Made in China' label
'Made in China' label - 
Listen To The Story


KAI RYSSDAL: The U.S. trade relationship with China is a complicated one. Climate change isn't making it any easier. The Chinese make a lot of the stuff we want to buy. That means their factories are putting out a lot of greenhouse gasses on our behalf. Today in Beijing Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said American consumers should pay for the carbon content of what we consume. Sounds simple. But of course it's not.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.

Sam Eaton: Accounting for the environmental costs of consumer products has long been the rallying call of environmentalists. Not anymore. This week, Wal-Mart announced plans to measure the environmental impact of every product that hits its shelves. Even U.S. manufacturers are now on board. That is, as long as the climate legislation in Congress passes and as long as they're not the sole target.

Scott Segal is an industry lobbyist with Bracewell & Giuliani.

Scott Segal: What we're talking about here is making sure that Chinese goods don't have an unfair competitive advantage by virtue of the fact that their manufacturers haven't had to pay to control carbon.

Today's comments by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in Shanghai confirms that even the White House may be reconsidering the idea of tariffs.

David Victor is an international relations professor at UC San Diego. He says there's no way to make a dent in global emissions, unless consumers pay the environmental costs of goods. But how do you determine those costs? He says it's one thing for Wal-Mart to tell its suppliers to pony up emissions data.

David Victor: It's another thing for a whole country to tell another country, the U.S. telling China, to report accurate data about the emissions that come from a whole bunch of factories across China that the Chinese government itself probably doesn't really administer very well.

Victor says the White House is most likely using trade tariffs as a threat to get China to reduce its emissions. But he says the problem with threats is that sometimes you have to act on them. And if that happens, he says the result would be an all-out trade war.

In Los Angeles, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

Follow Sam Eaton at @eatonsam