Does Sarkozy have an answer for Chinese pollution?

Possibly. For a right-wing tit with a hole in his head, he just might think pretty good, sometimes.

First, the problem (by way of an update on the problem): economic mechanisms for the control of pollution. Cap-and-trade is an excellent notion, Coasean solutions are excellent ideals. And they work pretty well, within an economy. The Clean Air Act in the US did a very nice job at bringing down emissions. Pigovian taxes (essentially allowing the government to function as our agent in a Coasean solution) also work quite well.

However. What happens when the ecology affected by pollution has no control over the economy causing it? Case in point: China.

Studies have found that the worst effects of acid rain and other pollution occur within several hundred miles of a power plant, where the extra acidity of rainfall can poison crops, trees and lakes alike.

But China is generating such enormous quantities of pollution that the effects are felt farther downwind than usual. Sulfur and ash that make breathing a hazard are being carried by the wind to South Korea, Japan and beyond.

Not enough of the Chinese emissions reach the United States to have an appreciable effect on acid rain yet. But, they are already having an effect in the mountains in West Coast states. These particles are dense enough that, at maximum levels during the spring, they account at higher altitudes for a fifth or more of the maximum levels of particles allowed by the latest federal air quality standards. Over the course of a year, Chinese pollution averages 10 to 15 percent of allowable levels of particles. The amounts are smaller for lower-lying cities, like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

China is also the world’s largest emitter of mercury, which has been linked to fetal and child development problems, said Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington.

Unless Chinese regulators become much more aggressive over the next few years, considerably more emissions could reach the United States. Chinese pollution is already starting to make it harder and more expensive for West Coast cities to meet stringent air quality standards, said Professor Cliff of the University of California, slowing four decades of progress toward cleaner air.

The US government cannot tax Chinese firms, and the US government cannot mandate emissions reductions by, or regulate the trade of emissions permits amongst, Chinese firms. Or can they? Enter Sarkozy:

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, on Tuesday warned China that the European Union could penalise cheap imports from high carbon-emitting countries in order to defend EU companies obliged to meet strict environmental standards.

Mr Sarkozy, alluding to the EU’s informal goal of halving its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, said such targets were essential in order to avert a planetary catastrophe.

“We cannot have one response from Europe and one from Asia, one from the north and one from the south,” he said. “China can and must play its full part.”

But he said the EU, which regards itself as the world’s pace-setter in fighting climate change, would not indefinitely let its companies bear the brunt of this campaign if countries that mass-produced cheaper goods delayed adopting similar standards.

“I will defend the principle of a carbon compensation mechanism at the EU’s borders with regard to countries that don’t put in place rules for reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Mr Sarkozy said.

His idea already has supporters in the European Commission, particularly among officials charged with defending the interests of industry.

So far it doesn’t look as though he has a majority of Europe on-board; amongst other things, there is always the danger of retaliation by the Chinese government.

Speaking more generally, one ought also be wary of such a policy: we’ve seen, more than well-enough over-used, domestic economic policies dressed up as foreign aid – why not as foreign environmental policy? If China won’t adjust its exchange rate, jack up the “green” tariff on Chinese imports. The EU is the home of the CAP, for Cliff’s sake: it wouldn’t suprised me (nor, for that matter, would it with respect to Japan, the US, Australia… it’d be a long and protectionist list).

Give him credit, though – he’s fairly clearly shit at being a domestic leader, but Sarkozy is putting out ideas on the international stage. At the very least, we need to think of something:

In its latest report, the International Energy Agency, the west’s watchdog, said China was likely to overtake the US as the world’s largest energy consumer soon after 2010. Chinese primary energy demand is forecast to more than double from 1,742m tonnes of oil equivalent to 3,819m tonnes by 2030.

[Image from the New York Times:]

nyt pic

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