Can EU carbon border adjustment measures propel WTO climate talks?

Gary Clyde Hufbauer (PIIE), Jisun Kim (POSCO Research Institute) and Jeffrey J. Schott (PIIE)

Policy Brief
21-23
November 2021
Photo Credit: 
Adrien Nowak/Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect

Reforms proposed in the European Union’s “Fit for 55” climate policy package are likely to sharply increase the cost paid by European firms for their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Recognizing that increased carbon prices would put European firms at a disadvantage in competing with imports from countries that produce without incurring these costs, the European Commission has proposed a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) requiring that the most carbon-intensive EU imports either incur comparable carbon charges as EU firms or pay the equivalent of a carbon-based tariff. The CBAM aims to deter carbon leakage, which could arise if firms shift carbon-intensive production out of Europe to facilities in countries that do not tax GHG emissions (or tax at a low rate) and then export the goods to Europe. European production and output would suffer and global climate efforts to reduce GHG emissions would be undercut. The loftier goal is to encourage other countries to follow the European example and strengthen their own national decarbonization policies, which in turn would exempt their goods from CBAM charges.

The CBAM would cover five carbon-intensive industries: iron and steel, aluminum, fertilizer, electricity, and cement. Countries most affected by the CBAM include Russia, China, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Ukraine, South Korea, and India. Some are likely to contest the policy, claiming that the CBAM is a unilateral measure that violates World Trade Organization rules and bolsters protectionism while hampering rather than encouraging efforts in other countries to tackle climate change. A better and more feasible approach would be adoption of a CBAM moratorium while negotiations are conducted to promote carbon abatement policies that comply with the rules-based global trading system.