Saturday, 16 May 2009

Should we put a carbon tax on China?

Paul Krugman wants to say yes:
As the United States and other advanced countries finally move to confront climate change, they will also be morally empowered to confront those nations that refuse to act. Sooner than most people think, countries that refuse to limit their greenhouse gas emissions will face sanctions, probably in the form of taxes on their exports. They will complain bitterly that this is protectionism, but so what? Globalization doesn’t do much good if the globe itself becomes unlivable.
Tyler Cowen says no:
1. The Chinese are often paranoid (arguably for good reason) and we will get further being nice to them than by being confrontational. Krugman himself admits that they don't seem themselves as culpable on this issue. Chinese citizens wanting clean air at home are possibly our biggest ally so let's not alienate them.

2. Last I checked China was funding a big chunk of our government's debt. Confronting them would have to be bundled with a regime of extreme fiscal conservatism and unilateral foreign policy.

3. It can be very hard to identify and isolate the energy inputs into an exported product, especially if the host government is uncooperative and a lot of money is at stake.

4. We cannot credibly penalize the Chinese until we solve our own pollution problem. Even under Obama's proposed policies, in their purer forms, that is at best decades away. In the meantime, what is it that is really being advocated? Non-credible threats?

5. Once the political process gets its hand on such tariffs they will be directed against, say, Chinese cars, including maybe relatively clean ones, rather than the dirtiest Chinese exports.

6. Last I checked there was something called the United Nations and China sat on its Security Council. The UN is the (supposed) forum for handling problems of this nature. Yes, we could construct an alternative "League of Democracies" as John McCain (!) had suggested, in part to deal with global warming and other multilateral problems where the non-democracies won't cooperate. I don't favor this change but if we are going to do it we need to realize how radical a foreign policy step it would be and how Russia would respond as well.
Point 3 raises the issue of on what basis do you tax on? You would want to tax the pollution causing inputs in the production processes but how do you do that? You only have the final product and not details of how it was made. Point 5 does raise the issue of self serving protectionist measures being put to place under the reasoning of doing something about climate change but which will harm world trade and do nothing to help climate change. They may however get politicians a few more votes.

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