In Battle for U.S. Carbon Caps, Eyes and Efforts Focus on China

China reduced energy use by 1 percent in 2006, short of the 4 percent target.
China reduced energy use by 1 percent in 2006, short of the 4 percent target. (Associated Press)
By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Supporters of limits on greenhouse gases are betting that the road to U.S. climate-change legislation runs through China.

This year, China is expected to surpass the United States as the leading producer of greenhouse gases, and one reason the Bush administration has declined to enact emissions limits is its concern about leaving China unchecked.

So a variety of lawmakers, environmentalists and business leaders are looking at ways to engage China in the battle against climate change -- or pay the price for doing nothing. Proposed strategies range from providing financing and technology transfers to imposing special carbon-based import tariffs or changing supply contracts.

Dealing with both U.S. and Chinese inaction on greenhouse gases is expected to be high on the agenda today when President Bush meets with fellow leaders from the Group of Eight industrialized nations. European leaders have tried to press Bush into endorsing mandatory limits on greenhouse gases; Bush has balked. Instead, he proposed last week that 15 countries, including China, start negotiations this year on limiting emissions but without setting specific standards.

In anticipation of climate change talks at today's G-8 meeting, Todd Stern of the Center for American Progress and William Antholis of the Brookings Institution have proposed the creation of an "E-8" group that would deal with ecological issues and would include China, India, Brazil and South Africa.

Others are looking toward measures that are within control of Congress and could be part of a climate-control package. "There is a lot of discussion up on the Hill about whether within the context of U.S. legislation there would be language that would put China on the hook for action as well," said Joanna Lewis, a senior international fellow at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

The debate is similar to the one that led the Senate and the Bush administration to reject the Kyoto treaty on greenhouse gases. Then, as now, foes argued that making U.S. greenhouse-gas producers pay for their emissions would only hand Chinese competitors a bigger advantage.

Kathleen A. McGinty, secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection and former adviser to Vice President Al Gore, thinks import tariffs are one option. She argues that it would not violate World Trade Organization rules, which she says allow tariffs "when public health is at stake."

Michael G. Morris, chief executive of American Electric Power, recently made a similar suggestion in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"If other countries refuse to reduce emissions but seek to continue to sell their goods in the U.S., our proposal would implement an appropriate measure to equalize the conditions of global trade," Morris said. He said such measures could include "border adjustment taxes" equal to domestic greenhouse gas costs.

Not surprisingly, the Morris proposal has the support of Edwin D. Hill, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Though it has an environmental rationale, it would be a protective tariff of the sort that many unions have long fought for in a losing battle against free-trade advocates.

Environmental groups have different views. "Connected to the right domestic legislation, we think that proposal is a way to solve the domestic political problem in a way that lets us move forward at home without disadvantaging American companies and workers," said David Doniger, policy director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It also creates some diplomatic leverage to use to get China to take on stronger commitments."

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