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Only the WTO can stop global warming
April 25, 2006 02:32 PM
What a week it's been for mother earth. David Cameron visits a
melting glacier and announces Tory support for a carbon tax. Menzies
Campbell has an announcement too - he will be selling his Jag. And,
after nine years as chancellor, Gordon Brown delivers his first
speech on the environment.
Good stuff all round, the problem is none of it brings us any closer
towards changing one rather important fact: As a result of human
activity, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are now higher
than at any point at human history and are still climbing.
To stabilise those concentrations the nations of the world have to
make deep cuts in their emissions. So far progress is not
encouraging, which has brought great cheer to the opponents of the
Kyoto treaty. Targets don't work, they say. What we need instead is
new technology. This is a position that Tony Blair has been flirting
with for some time.
But new technology costs money, so who will pay? The obvious answer
is the polluter. And so how should the costs be fairly apportioned
between different countries? According to how much they pollute, of
course. Which takes us back to targets.
The reason why they haven't worked so far is because they're not
enforced. Thus any successor to the Kyoto treaty, which expires in
2012, needs to be underpinned by an effective enforcement mechanism.
So far, dear readers, I sense I am carrying most of you with me - but
here's where I throw it all away.
Look around the world and there are only two enforcement mechanisms
that can operate on a truly global level. The first of these is the
US military, but that's not looking so effective of late. The second
is the World Trade Organisation. The anti-globalisation movement may
hate it - but one of the reasons why they do is that it is ready and
able to enforce free trade agreements. If the WTO were more like the
Kyoto treaty then signatory nations could agree to tariff reductions
and then fail to implement them in the sure knowledge that there'd be
no come back. As it is, however, protectionism is punished through
trade sanctions and so cheating is kept to a minimum. That's why the
negotiation of further free trade agreements are so fraught,
signatory nations know that they will be held to their commitments.
The anti-globalisers will argue that the WTO enforces agreements that
cheat the poor, but that is not the issue here. Indeed, the poorest
nations of the world have very little to fear from a global agreement
to limit carbon emissions because their emissions are so low. From a
different angle, the climate change sceptics will argue that enforced
targets would represent an attack on national sovereignty. But
strangely that doesn't seem to bother them when it comes to enforcing
So my modest proposition is this: negotiate a successor to Kyoto and
then let the WTO enforce it. Nations that failed to meet their carbon
targets would have a proportionate tariff slapped on their imports.
Such a system could even be used to deal with countries that refused
to sign up to the new agreement. The WTO would unilaterally impose a
target on each non-signatory nation, with their excess carbon
emissions and consequent penalties being assessed in absentia. The
export-led economies of China, India and other key Kyoto absentees
would be particularly susceptible to such pressure.
Of course, America would have to be on side in order to give such a
framework the necessary weight. But with John McCain or Hilary
Clinton in the White House, America could be persuaded - especially
as the framework is built around the principle that participants
should not be unfairly disadvantaged by the non-participation or
cheating of competitor nations.
Many on the right, and perhaps also the left, would be appalled by
the implications of such a system. But if it works for free trade,
why shouldn't it work for carbon emmissions? In any case, what is the
alternative? To rely on toothless treaties? Or to talk about new
technology and do nothing about it?