Addressing the Leakage/Competitiveness Issue in Climate Change Policy Proposals

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Date Published:

Apr 9, 2009


We will likely see increasing efforts to minimize leakage of carbon to non-participating countries and to address concerns on behalf of the competitiveness of carbon-intensive industry. Environmentalists on one side and free traders on the other side fear that border measures such as tariffs or permit-requirements against imports of carbon-intensive products will collide with the WTO. There need not necessarily be a conflict, if the measures are designed sensibly. There are precedents—the shrimp-turtle case and the Montreal Protocol—that could justify border measures to avoid undermining the Kyoto Protocol or its successors, if the measures are carefully designed. But if the design is dominated by politics, as is likely, import penalties are likely to run afoul of the WTO, to distort trade, and perhaps even to fail in the goal of preventing leakage. Border measures should follow principles along the following lines:

  • They should follow guidelines multilaterally-agreed by countries participating in the emission targets of the Kyoto Protocol and/or its successors, against countries that are not doing so, rather than being applied unilaterally or by non-participants
  • Measures to address leakage to non-members can take the form of either tariffs or permit-requirements on carbon-intensive imports; they should not take the form of subsidies to domestic sectors that are considered to have been put at a competitive disadvantage
  • Independent panels of experts, not politicians, should be responsible for judgments as to findings of fact—what countries are complying or not, what industries are involved and what is their carbon content, what countries are entitled to respond with border measures, or the nature of the response
  • Import penalties should target fossil fuels and a half dozen or so of the most energy-intensive major industries—perhaps aluminum, cement, steel, paper, glass, iron and chemicals—rather than penalizing industries that are further removed from the carbon-intensive activity, such as firms that use inputs produced in an energy-intensive process


Forthcoming in Climate Change, Trade and Investment: Is a Collision Inevitable? edited by Lael Brainard. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2009. This version revised, March 31, 2009.

Last updated on 07/29/2016