Europe Looks at Climate Change Pollution Penalties for the US?

EU climate policy is gearing up to confront the US. Imports from countries that refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol could be subject to punitive tariff duties -- a new measure intended to pressure the Bush Administration. A climate tax on flights may also be introduced.

By Volker Mrasek

A pollution tax? The EU is considering it.

A pollution tax? The EU is considering it.

One press conference followed another at the United Nations climate talks in Nairobi, and everyone got to chime in. The UN, the Climate Change Secretariat, national governments and international bodies like the European Union -- their statements were generally boring, since the summit hadn't arrived at anything new. That changed Wednesday evening, when the EU delegation issued an invitation to the day's final meeting, where a serious threat to the United States was formulated.

Irish EU delegate Avril Doyle said the European Commission was considering a punitive tariff on imports from countries guilty of gross environmental irresponsibility. The measure would specifically target Australia and the United States.

An expert committee or "High Level Group (HLG) on Competitiveness, Energy and the Environment" created by the EU nine months ago is looking into the issue, according to Doyle. The committee members include EU Industry Commissar Günter Verheugen and German Economic Minister Michael Glos.

The import tax would be imposed on countries that have not yet ratified the Kyoto Protocol on international climate protection. The US is the most prominent of those nations -- and the one with the world's highest greenhouse gas emissions. US President George W. Bush rejects the Kyoto Protocol. There are only three other countries that have not yet ratified the international agreement and are therefore not bound to observe its guidelines: Kazakhstan, Croatia and Australia. Kazakhstan has announced that it plans to ratify the protocol soon, however.

"Balancing out" global trade

EU Environmental Minister Stavros Dimas confirmed that the commission in Brussels was looking into punitive tariffs. A study on "the pros and cons of such a measure" will be prepared by the commission, the Greek minister said at the climate talks. The commission's official mandate is to formulate ideas for a sustainable European energy policy that will maintain industry competitiveness while taking account of not just developments within the EU, "but also on the wider international stage."

The punitive tariffs will "balance out" economic irregularities in the "struggle against climate change," according to Dimas. Countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol are faced with extra costs connected with the global trading of pollution certificates, which means they're subject to rising prices on their products. Since industries in the US and Australia don't have to introduce climate protection measures or buy pollution certificates, their products don't face the same problem.

A tax on European flights?

The Times of London reported today that the EU might also levy a carbon-dioxide charge on flights that cross EU airspace, land on EU territory or depart from there. The paper cites a Brussels document that mentions a possible surcharge of as much as €40 ($51) on long distance flights and nine euros ($11.50) on flights within the EU. The Association of European Airlines (AEA) has warned that implementation of this plan could lead to a trade war between the US and the EU, according to the Times.

In late October, the new High Level Group presented a report urging the European Commission and EU member states to act against the countries with the highest carbon dioxide emissions. US President Bush has repeatedly emphasized that the international agreement would hurt the US economy, and the US delegation in Nairobi also emphasized that Washington did not intend to ratify the Protocol.

It seems the EU has gotten tired of the consistently defiant attitude displayed by the world's major environmental culprit. Speaking in Nairobi, Environmental Minister Dimas said the EU was still trying to convince the US to change course. He added, however, that the struggle against climate change is now being conducted on "many fronts."

Dealing directly with American states

Irish EU politician Doyle had another surprising announcement in Nairobi: She said a measure was being considered to allow single US states to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Doyle said many people doubted whether such bilateral agreements could be made without the federal government in Washington -- but some American states, led by Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have positioned themselves against President Bush's climate policy.

In any case, individual states would have the option of setting up their own emission trading system, which could then be linked to the global trading system established by the Kyoto Protocol, Dimas said. It wouldn't matter who the cooperating party is or what formal name it goes by, he emphasized: "We can work with anyone."


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