The failure, and quite possibly the death, of the Doha round of trade negotiations earlier this week could create a very confusing and erratic regulatory landscape for the chemicals industry.
This excellent entry in the New Scientist environment blog by Fred Pearce, senior environment correspondent, makes the point that if the world cannot agree on further trade liberalisation, what hope for global climate-change legislation?
As Fred points out, John McCain, if elected, has made it clear that he won’t accepted emissions caps if China and India do not follow suit.
Obama. however, is prepared to let the US take the lead ahead of the Asian giants. He warns, though, that if they don’t agree to fall in line at some point, import tariffs could be imposed equivalent to the energy content of finished goods.
The European Union is also understood to be considering the same safeguards as it looks to extend its cap-and-trade system. Industry, including at least one of the oil-to-chemicals majors, is lobbying hard for safeguard provisions of taxes on imports if no global agreement is reached.
Chemicals and other producers would obviously shut up shop in the EU and move to countries where there was no price set on emissions or if there was no effective import-tax system or some other kind of economic disincentive.
Despite the few remaining climate-change scepticis – quite rightly derided in the same New Scientist blog – climate change as a result of human acitvity is accepted by most scientists and governments as a reality.
A global agreement on a price mechanism for carbon – whether its a cap-and-trade system and/or a tax – would be the best outcome for the chemicals industry. It would enable producers everywhere to accurately assess the cost of investment in better processes and new technologies.
They could also make reliable and predictable income through trading credits globally and from operating and licensing new technologies.
Piecemeal legislation wouldn’t provide the same degree of clarity, leading to equally piecemeal strategies from company to company and region to region.
The lawyers might also make a lot of money out of disputes over carbon import taxes.
And, of course, companies might still look to move their investments elsewhere by searching for loopholes in US and EU carbon import-tariff rules.
As the effects of climate change accelerate, you could also see knee-jerk nonsensical regulations introduced by governments out of sheer panic. This could make life very difficult, if not impossible, for chemical producers in certain countries.
So let’s hope the Doha round can be rescued – and that it serves as a confidence builder towards the much bigger job of a new global agreement on emissions.