Global Ethics Corner: Climate Protectionism and Competitiveness

September 18, 2009

Trade has a magic.

You have what I want and vice versa. Through exchange we both benefit.

But what if the traded goods cause harm, through local pollution sickening factory workers or through global climate warming?

Climate treaties need enforcement mechanisms. If some countries fail to reduce emissions, others may turn to climate protectionism, using tariffs or quotas to regulate. Similarly, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 contains a Buy America clause.

So, is this climate rationale a legitimate restriction on trade or a smokescreen for protecting politically sensitive domestic industries? Would a carbon-based trade war succeed in reducing emissions, or just shift pollution elsewhere?

Developing countries often see the link between trade and environment as unjust because they have less technical capacity to adapt. Should their development be sacrificed to prop up firms in rich countries?

Others also claim that climate protectionism violates the letter and spirit of World Trade Organization resolutions, weakening the multilateral system.

The global circulation of goods is a major source of both prosperity and global warming.

What do you think? Can trade be regulated to maximize development and reduce emissions?

By Evan O'Neil

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