More trade horrors from the US campaign trail

The proposal from the electrical workers’ union is explained in this NY Times article.

What EC Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson means by the proposal being a “probable breach” of WTO trade rules is that unilateral measures must be both necessary and non-discriminatory under the GATT’s rules on “environmental” non-tariff import barriers. In the 1990’s, the USA twice failed these tests of its laws on turtle-exluding purse-seiner nets for shrimp boats and (probably—the case was never decided) of its laws concerning the protection of dolphins by tuna boats. As I argue here, the most plausible necessity-test is one that shows a barrier has been imposed to comply with an internationally-agreed obligation in an environmental treaty, such as the Kyoto Protocol.

Of course, the reason that the Obama camp is proposing this unilateral action is precisely because such international agreement on trade sanctions is entirely unlikely. Here, Peter Mandelson’s second point is relevant. The Obama proposal is ‘bad politics’ because unilateral action by the USA or Europe to impose sanctions would make the prospect of international agreement on any collaborative action on climate change—let alone on sanctions for non-compliance with emissions controls—more remote, defeating his whole purpose.

Obama’s advisors, at least, could take a few lessons in leadership from Mandelson.


  • Peter,

    But isn’t it possible to set up such a law in a non-discriminatory manner?  In practice it can be difficult (to get the language right and to keep lobbyists from throwing in some protectionism), but at least in theory it could be done.  Granted, an international agreement would be better.  But if one can’t be negotiated (which is possible), I can see why people feel they have to go the unilateral route.


  • Hi Simon,

    I agree it would be possible to do this in a non-discriminatory fashion. It is the necessity I am questioning (as in e.g. Shrimp-Turtle).

    As is probably clear from other stories on my site, I am inclined to question the evidence that controlling carbon emissions would do much (if anything) about climate change.

    But if I did think it were desirable, then I could imagine other means than a law that resulted in a trade measure to bring about the global reduction in carbon emissions. In fact, I would be pretty sure that my own laws and emissions controls would be completely ineffective in bringing about a global result if unilateral and ipso facto ‘unnecessary’. 

    For practical, and legal, reasons I thing P. Mandelson is right and Obama’s advisor is wrong. Worse, I think that this naive approach can only spell trouble.


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