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.


  1. 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.


  2. 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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