Monday, March 30, 2009

What cap and trade will do to trade

The Wall Street Journal points out how the Obama plan for a cap and trade carbon tax will lead to a trade war. Since the cap and trade plan would make the cost of manufacturing in the United States go up, some companies are going to migrate to other countries that aren't so concerned about the environment. The cry will then go up to protect our remaining industries with tariffs on products coming from countries that don't have carbon taxes. And those countries, particularly China, will retaliate with their own taxes on trade. Hello, trade war.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu made the protectionist point during an underreported House hearing this month, when he said tariffs and other trade barriers could be used as a "weapon" to force countries like China and India into cutting their own CO2 emissions. "If other countries don't impose a cost on carbon, then we will be at a disadvantage," he said. So a cap-and-trade policy won't be cost-free after all. Apparently Mr. Chu did not get the White House memo about obfuscating the impact of the Administration's anticarbon policies.

The Chinese certainly heard Mr. Chu, with Xie Zhenhua, a top economic minister, immediately responding that such a policy would be a "disaster" and "an excuse to impose trade restrictions." Beijing's reaction shows that as a means of coercing international cooperation, climate tariffs are worse than pointless. China and India are never going to endanger their own economic growth -- and the chance to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty -- merely to placate the climate neuroses of affluent Americans in Silicon Valley or Cambridge, Massachusetts. And they certainly won't do it under the threat of a tariff ultimatum.

But give Mr. Chu credit for candor. He had previously told the New York Times that "The concern about cap and trade in today's economic climate is that a lot of money might flow to developing countries in a way that might not be completely politically sellable." He is admitting that one byproduct of cap and trade is "leakage," by which investment and jobs are driven to nations that have looser or nonexistent climate regimes and therefore lower costs. At greatest risk are carbon-heavy industries such as steel, aluminum, paper, cement and chemicals that are sensitive to trade and where business is won and lost on the basis of pennies per unit of product. But the damage could strike almost any industry when energy prices "necessarily skyrocket," as Mr. Obama put it last year.

So in addition to all the other economic harm, a cap-and-trade tax will make foreign companies more competitive while eroding market share for U.S. businesses. The most harm will accrue to the very U.S. manufacturing and heavy-industry jobs that Democrats and unions claim to want to keep inside the U.S. A cap-and-tax plan would be the greatest outsourcing boon in history. And it may even increase CO2 emissions overall, because the developing nations where businesses are likely to relocate -- if they don't simply close -- tend to use energy less efficiently than does the U.S.
So let's review. A cap and trade plan will result in raising the prices of manufacturing items. It will hurt those business already struggling and lead to more layoffs and more companies moving offshore. And then there will come the looming trade war with China. And the result may be more carbon being emitted into the atmosphere as manufacturing shifts worldwide to nations that have even less environmental controls. Lovely. Just what this country's economy needs right now.