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Make the Poor Pay

There is a growing notion that rich countries should slash imports from poor countries whose antiquated factories are heavy carbon emitters: this eco-protectionism is in fact good old-fashioned protectionism and would hit the poor hardest.

By Nonoy Oplas

There is a growing notion that rich countries should slash imports from poor countries whose antiquated factories are heavy carbon emitters: this eco-protectionism is in fact good old-fashioned protectionism and would hit the poor hardest. “We want a binding decision now that we will take measures to protect [EU] industries in 2012 in case there is not agreement,” European Union Commission President José Manuel Barroso told London’s The Times this March, talking about import curbs to protect Europe’s energy-intensive industries.

Import duties or compulsory carbon quota purchases on goods “from countries that refuse [carbon] restriction efforts seems therefore indispensable,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy wrote to Barroso in January. This week, the UN official in charge of climate talks on climate change in Bangkok, Yvo de Boer, evoked the specter of “food miles”–a tax on imported food: the greater the distance, the higher the fee. In fact, you get less carbon emissions overall by growing green beans in Kenya and flying them to Europe in big bad aero planes than you do by growing them in Europe and selling them at a charming rural farmers’ market.

This is just another protectionist racket that would do little or nothing to reduce carbon emissions. What it would do is push up food prices at a time when high prices are causing street protests from Mexico to India and Côte d’Ivoire. Such trade sanctions would slow down worldwide economic growth but not climate change.

Trade barriers would not even help industries in developed countries. After benefiting a few industries in the short-term, they would eventually raise costs for industry and consumers–stifling growth, innovation and competitively in world markets. “Goals to reduce EU emissions by 50-80% by 2050 are pointless if this is done through pollution displacement–by increasingly importing CO2-intensive products from the rest of the world.

For the EU to reduce its global CO2 emissions, systemic changes to the European economy are needed,” a recent World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report said. The WWF wants developed countries to import more “cleaner” goods but climate activists, unions, Barroso and Sarkozy want developed countries to cut their imports of CO2-intensive goods, especially from China, India, South Africa and Brazil.

The European Trade Union Confederation demands “carbon taxes” on imports. The Lieberman-Warner bill currently working its way through the US Senate calls for a reduction of 20% by 2020 from 2005 emission levels and proposes carbon taxes on imports from countries without a similar carbon cap. It is heavily endorsed by the influential International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and American Electric Power (but opposed by the Bush Administration). And the excuse is that all this will help save the planet. But trade sanctions would not prevent climate change or environmental degradation: even abolishing all imports from developing countries would not push carbon emissions down anywhere near the level the activists want.

Restricting growth would diminish the ability of the poorest to shield themselves from disease, extreme weather and other potential impacts of climate change. When countries are poor, their people use dirtier technologies, such as second- or third-hand vehicles or burning dung indoors for cooking. Right now, what kills many poor people is poverty, not climate change: dirty water, malaria, malnutrition, air pollution in cities, indoor smoke from wood or dung. These murderous afflictions can only be solved by prosperity, meaning economic growth.

Cutting exports by poor countries will depress their national income, undermining their capacity to import products from rich countries, including fuel-efficient cars, energy-efficient machinery and less-polluting production technologies–a neat vicious circle. “Poor countries like Guyana will suffer the most from measures to stop climate change, even though they have contributed the least to the problem,” Guyanan delegate Andrew Bishop said in Bangkok this week. Eco-protectionism prompted by climate change alarmism will only impoverish the rich and kill more poor people.


This article appeared in The Frontier Post on April 15, 2008.