Index > Briefing
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
The Effects of "Carbon Tariffs" on International Trade

Global climate change is becoming a new international concern. Major economies, including China, the European Union, and Japan, have put forward their targets of "carbon peak" and "carbon neutrality". The new U.S. government is changing the stance of the previous administration in joining the effort to cut carbon emissions. From the perspective of economic development, green development is becoming a global consensus and a new theme for the future development of all countries. In this context, countries, mainly the EU countries, are currently working on a "carbon tariff" system. If implemented, such a system will not only have a far-reaching impact on global green development, but will also become a new factor in international trade and change the global economic and trade pattern.

The concept of "carbon tariff" originated in EU countries, aiming to promote regional green emission reduction through tariff regulation. On January 15, 2020, the EU adopted the "European Green Deal", which sets out the EU's carbon reduction target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. This green development strategy calls for a new system of "carbon tariffs" across the EU. The EU sees this move as an incentive for EU and non-EU trade sectors to decarbonize in line with the Paris Agreement targets, and to avoid unfair price competition for EU companies as a result of efforts to mitigate climate change. On March 10 this year, the European Parliament voted in a plenary session to approve the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) bill, which will impose carbon tariffs on some goods imported into the EU, and is expected to be implemented from 2023 onwards. This means that the carbon tariff mechanism has become a new EU law and will be implemented in the future.

On the U.S. side, since the commencement of the Biden administration, the U.S. has changed its conservative attitude on international climate issues during the Trump administration era. Now, it actively participates in the implementation of the Paris Agreement. According to an agenda released by the United States Trade Representative's Office, the Biden administration is considering imposing "carbon border tax" or "border adjustment tax," which would raise import tariffs on products from countries the U.S. considers responsible for addressing climate change. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as a G-7 leader, has suggested to push for carbon border taxes among the G-7 member countries. It is clear that the establishment of a "carbon tariff" system is certain for developed countries to deal with the climate issue.

The significance of establishing a "carbon tariff" system is to promote regional green development and global carbon emission reduction. However, this new system means that the international free trade system under the World Trade Organization (WTO) framework will be affected. In addition, it may also indicate that developed countries are using carbon emission reduction as an excuse to establish new trade barriers to raise the production costs of underdeveloped countries that are lagging behind in "carbon reduction", so as to protect their related industries. If developed countries take advantage of environmental technology to occupy the markets of underdeveloped countries, it will form a new trade inequality. This in fact, is disregarding the lagging capacity of underdeveloped countries in carbon reduction. According to the EU, the four key objectives of a "carbon tariff" are: (1) to limit carbon leakage; (2) to prevent the decline of domestic industrial competitiveness; (3) to encourage foreign trading partners and foreign producers to take measures comparable/equivalent to those of the EU; (4) the proceeds would be used to finance clean technology innovation and infrastructure modernization, or for international climate finance. The mechanism should cover power and energy-intensive industrial sectors, such as cement, steel, aluminum, oil refineries, paper, glass, chemicals, and fertilizers. The establishment of this new system means that the global trade pattern under the WTO framework will change, and the industrial layout and economic structure of each country will be affected. Some analysts believe that if each country and region formulate such a de facto tariff system, it may develop into a new round of global trade war.

According to Japanese media reports, Japan has a strong sense of crisis over the situation and plans to put forward a proposal to launch negotiations on the issue at the relevant meeting of the WTO on March 22. In addition to seeking U.S. participation, Japan also intends to act as a bridge with emerging countries with higher emissions by providing proposals to reduce import tariffs on products that contribute most to decarbonization, including wind power, ammonia fuel cells, batteries, and solar power. The EU is informally proposing to key countries for environmental rules to be drawn up through the WTO, which is likely to be the main battleground for discussions. At present, the relevant mechanism coordination has been carried out on the basis of the OECD.

Some analysts believe that the multi-national negotiation involves many aspects, but mainly focusing on the design of the system on the basis of not violating WTO free trade rules, the calculation and pricing of carbon emissions, as well as ensuring the transparency of data, and so on. Other than these, the breakdown of industries in the scope of the levy will also be the focus of the negotiation. The EU has been active in this extensive negotiation and discussion, which raises concerns on seizing the opportunity to promote a global institutional system in favor of the EU. It can be said that the design of the system of "carbon tariff" is a new challenge affecting the future market pattern for every country, including China.

The "carbon tariff" system will significantly affect China's imports and exports, and its impact may be no less than the trade dispute between the U.S. and China. According to Tencent Research Institute, China is a net exporter of "carbon emissions". In 2018, China exported 1.53 billion tons of goods with implied CO2 emissions and imported 542 million tons of goods with implied CO2 emissions. Net exports of goods with implied CO2 emissions accounted for about 10.5% of the country's total emissions. Among them, the export to the EU amounted to 270 million tons, accounting for 17.6%; imports from the EU amounted to 31 million tons. Most manufactured goods exported by China are in the middle and low end of the international industrial chain, with high energy consumption and low value-added. Given that coal-fired power generation is an important part of China's energy structure, China's energy carbon emission factor is much higher than the average level of the EU, and the products produced in China do not have any advantage in terms of carbon tariff. This means that after the implementation of the "carbon tariff", Chinese exporters will face unprecedented pressure. At the same time, EU exports, which are mainly low carbon products, will be more competitive, thus increasing exports to China. These factors will inevitably change China's international trade pattern.

In the long run, this new mechanism will force China to carry out industrial adjustment and upgrading, and promote the optimization of its industrial structure. It can be said that the implementation of the carbon tariff mechanism means that a new international trade system and industrial competition pattern focusing on climate change are taking shape around the world. Whether it is an active adjustment or passive transformation, it means that the transformation of China's economic development pattern will take place. From this point of view, the strategic thinking of building a hydrogen society proposed by ANBOUND is a forward-looking recommendation. The most pressing task for China is to establish a green development system, such as the system for "carbon trading" and "carbon pricing", so as to maintain the country's competitive advantage.

Final analysis conclusion:

Under the backdrop of addressing climate change and implementing low carbon development, the EU has promoted the establishment of a "carbon tariff" system, which has attracted the attention of major developed countries. In the future, this new system will bring about changes in the international trade system and industrial pattern, posing new challenges to China's development and participation in international competition.

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