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What’s killing the poor is poverty

There is a growing notion that rich countries should slash imports from poor countries whose antiquated factories are heavy carbon emitters: this eco-protectionism is in fact good old-fashioned protectionism and would hit the poor hardest.

“We want a binding decision now that we will take measures to protect [EU] industries in 2012 in case there is not agreement,” European Union Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told London’s The Times this March, talking about import curbs to protect Europe’s energy-intensive industries.

Import duties or compulsory carbon quota purchases on goods “from countries that refuse [carbon] restriction efforts seems therefore indispensable,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy wrote to Barroso in January.

This week, the U.N. official in charge of climate talks on climate change in Bangkok, Yvo de Boer, evoked the specter of “food miles” — a tax on imported food: the greater the distance, the higher the fee. In fact, you get fewer carbon emissions overall by growing green beans in Kenya and flying them to Europe in big bad aeroplanes than you do by growing them in Europe and selling them at a charming rural farmers’ market.

This is just another protectionist racket that would do little or nothing to reduce carbon emissions. What it would do is push up food prices at a time when high prices are causing street protests from Mexico to India and Cote d’Ivoire.

Such trade sanctions would slow down worldwide economic growth but not climate change.

Trade barriers would not even help industries in developed countries. After benefiting a few industries in the short-term, they would eventually raise costs for industry and consumers — stifling growth, innovation and competitivity in world markets.

“Goals to reduce EU emissions by 50-80 percent by 2050 are pointless if this is done through pollution displacement — by increasingly importing CO2-intensive products from the rest of the world. For the EU to reduce its global CO2 emissions, systemic changes to the European economy are needed,” a recent World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report said. The WWF wants developed countries to import “cleaner” goods but climate activists, unions, Barroso and Sarkozy want developed countries to cut their imports of CO2-intensive goods, especially from China, India, South Africa and Brazil. The European Trade Union Confederation demands “carbon taxes” on imports.

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