By Keith Johnson
NOTE: This post was updated Saturday morning.
Better leave the hardhat on (AP)
With the U.S. secretaries of energy and commerce in China this week, much of the attention focused on the standoff over emissions reductions or small breakthroughs in clean-tech cooperation.
But yesterday, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said something amazing—U.S. consumers should pay for part of Chinese greenhouse-gas emissions. From Reuters:
“It’s important that those who consume the products being made all around the world to the benefit of America — and it’s our own consumption activity that’s causing the emission of greenhouse gases, then quite frankly Americans need to pay for that,” Commerce Secretary Gary Locke told the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.
The idea that rich-country consumers should pick up the tab for some of China’s industrial emissions has been gaining currency lately—but not from within the Obama administration. The argument is that many of China’s factories churn out cheap stuff for the West, not for domestic consumption, so those consumers are actually responsible for the emissions. China, of course, loves the idea.
This could just be another area for trade tensions with China over the environment. The House climate bill includes a provision for mandatory “carbon tariffs” on dirty imports from countries such as China, which might be illegal under international trade law and which have riled up Beijing. President Obama and Senate leaders have frowned on hardline trade measures.
But Secretary Locke’s statement could open up a new can of worms—right when China’s actions on energy and the environment are proving so crucial to mustering support among wavering senators for the administration’s big cap-and-trade bill.
UPDATE: The Commerce Department sent this clarification late Friday:
“Secretary Locke has been very clear on emphasizing the importance of fair trade as a part of the United States’ relationship with China. He believes U.S. companies should not be disadvantaged by Chinese imports not bound by responsible policies to reduce carbon emissions. China and the US must work together to ensure a level playing field and reduce our carbon footprints. The Secretary’s trip to China demonstrated his commitment to fair trade and his belief that both the United States and China can benefit from shared investments and cooperation in clean energy that will lead to commercial and environmental benefits for both countries.”