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The Case for Carbon Tariffs

By backing tariffs that would reflect the carbon intensity of key imports, more than 3,500 US economists have broken with the free-market orthodoxy that national environmental policies should not impede global trade liberalization. They were right to do so.

AVIGNON – This January, 3,554 US economists – including 27 Nobel laureates, four former Chairs of the Federal Reserve, and two former Treasury Secretaries – proposed a previously heretical policy. The United States, they said, should combine a domestic carbon price with a “border carbon adjustment system.” By backing tariffs that would reflect the carbon intensity of key imports, they broke with the free-market orthodoxy that national environmental policies should not impede global trade liberalization.

They were right to do so. Absent carbon tariffs, concerns about industrial “competitiveness” will continue to constrain vital action to counter harmful climate change.

The fundamental obstacle to decarbonization is the apparent paradox that the costs are trivial at the final consumer level, but large for an individual company. As the Energy Transitions Commission’s recent Mission Possible report emphasizes, the technology to achieve total decarbonization of the global economy by around 2050-60, with very small effects on households’ living standards, already exists. If all steel used in car manufacturing were produced in a zero-carbon fashion, the price of a typical car would increase less than 1%. The total cost to decarbonize all the harder-to-abate sectors – heavy industries such as steel, cement and chemicals, and long-distance transport (trucking, aviation, and shipping) – would not exceed 0.5% of global GDP. Viewed from this perspective, there is no excuse for national policymakers failing to adopt policies that can drive progress to a zero-carbon economy.

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