Should Tariffs Be Used to Slow Climate Change?

Why do countries impose tariffs on imported goods? As we discuss in Economics Chapter 9 and MacroeconomicsChapter 7 (particularly in Section 5 of these chapters) countries primarily use tariffs to protect domestic industries from foreign competition. Protectionism appeared to be the main motivation when the Trump administration imposed tariffs on imports of steel, aluminum, and some other products from China, Canada, and countries in the European Union. It was also the main reason that the Biden administration decided in 2021 to retain many of those tariffs.

The other main justification for imposing tariffs is for reasons of national security. For instance, as we note in the textbook, the United States would not want to import its jet fighter engines from China. In fact, the Trump administration relied on Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 when it imposed tariffs, particularly tariffs on steel and aluminum. The Biden administration also cited this section of the law when continuing the tariffs. (In October 2021, the Biden administration negotiated with the European Union a partial reduction of these tariffs.) Under that section of the law, if the president decides that imports of a good threaten nationals security, “he shall take such action, and for such time, as he deems necessary to adjust the imports of such article and its derivatives so that such imports will not so threaten to impair the national security.” In other words, presidents have the power to impose tariffs on imports of a good if they assert that doing so protects the national security of the United States.

When they invoked this section of the law, both the Trump and Biden administrations were criticized for stretching its application beyond what Congress had intended. Critics argue that using this section of the law to impose tariffs on such close allies of the United States as the countries of the European Union was a violation of Congress’s intent because it was unlikely that imports of steel or aluminum from Europe threaten the national security of the United States.

If used as intended, Section 232 is a rare example of imposing tariffs for reasons other than protecting domestic industries. (It’s worth noting that during the 1800s and early 1900s, before there was a federal income tax, Congress relied on revenues from tariffs as the main source of funds to the federal government. In recent years tariff revenues have been very small compared with income taxes and the federal government’s other sources of revenue.) In 2021, some policymakers were proposing using tariffs for another purpose unrelated to protecting domestic industries: Slowing climate change.

In November 2021, the United States and the European Union announced that they would explore imposing tariffs on imports of steel from countries that impose few regulations on carbon emissions from steel mills. (These climate tariffs are sometimes referred to as border carbon adjustments (BCAs).) The tariffs might be extended to include imports of aluminum, chemicals, and cement. The rationale for these tariffs is that in the United States and Europe, steel producers must install expensive equipment to reduce carbon emissions or must pay a tax on those emissions.

These regulations raise the cost of producing steel and, therefore, the price of steel produced in Europe and the United States. As a result, U.S. and European firms that use steel, such as automobile companies, have an incentive to import lower-priced steel from countries that have few regulations on carbon emissions. According to one estimate, the production of steel being imported into the United States generates 50 percent to 100 percent more carbon dioxide emissions than does the production of domestic steel.  An article in the Wall Street Journal noted that a report from a consulting firm argued that “the emissions that many developed countries claim to have eliminated were ‘outsourced to developing countries,’ which generally have fewer resources to invest in cleaner and more advanced technology.”

Critics of using tariffs as a means of slowing climate change note that there are other measures that countries can use to reduce their own CO2 emissions and that attempts to use economic coercion to prod countries into changing policies have not generally been successful. They also note that Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 was intended to be used only for reasons of national security but has been used by the Trump and Biden administration more broadly to protect domestic industries. They fear that the same thing may happen if climate tariffs are allowed under international agreements: The tariffs may be used to protect domestic industries for reasons that have nothing to do with reducing climate change. In fact, an article on barrons.com noted that the agreement between the United States and the European Union to impose climate tariffs on steel imports was “aimed, according to administration officials, at countering the flood of cheap steel from China, which accounts for roughly 60% of production worldwide.”

In addition, some economists and policymakers fear that imposing climate tariffs may undermine the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which do not authorize countries to impose tariffs for this reason. This outcome is particularly likely if some countries see the tariffs as aimed more at protecting domestic industries than at slowing climate change. As we discuss in Section 5 of Chapter 9 in Economics (Macroeconomics Chapter 7), the WTO and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) resulted in decades of multilateral negotiations that greatly reduced tariffs. The tariff reductions spurred a tremendous expansion in world trade, which significantly increased incomes in the United States and most other countries—although it also disrupted some domestic industries in those countries. If the WTO were to cease to be effective, the world might return to the situation of the 1930s and earlier when countries used tariffs for a variety of policy reasons. The trade war of the 1930s, during which most countries raised tariff rates, led to a collapse in world trade and helped to worsen the Great Depression. 

If climate tariffs become common, the effect on both the climate and on the international trading system may be significant. 

Sources:  Josh Zumbrun, “U.S.-EU Steel Tariffs Deal Is Onerous for Smaller Importers,” wsj.com, November 5, 2021; Yuka Hayashi and Jacob M. Schlesinger, “Tariffs to Tackle Climate Change Gain Momentum. The Idea Could Reshape Industries,” wsj.com, November 2, 2021; By Reshma Kapadia, “The EU Tariff Deal Doesn’t Mean the Trade War With China Is Over,” barrons.com, November 2, 2021; Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Ari Natter, “Democrats Propose Tax on Carbon-Intensive Imports in Budget,” bloomberg.com, July 14, 2021; and Billy Pizer, “The Trade Tool that Could Unlock Climate Ambitions,” barrons.com, November 5, 2021.

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