Border Carbon Adjustment Tariffs and Decarbonisation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 16th December 2020.

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Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland 5:30 pm, 16th December 2020

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. That is one of the great benefits of a border adjustment: it allows us to raise domestic costs without being unfairly undercut by international imports coming in. We can square the circle. We can support the environment by setting a carbon price that is sufficient to change people’s behaviour, to make lower-carbon products more attractive in the economy than higher-carbon products, while at the same time facilitating our domestic industry to remain competitive.

It is because we cannot price carbon emissions that our market is currently floundering. The reason is that they are an externality. When I produce a piece of paper, I take account of the cost of the ingredients for the paper, the energy I will use, my overheads, my marketing spend, my transport and distribution costs, and my profit. However, in the free market exchange with my purchaser, the cost to society of the emission of carbon through that manufacturing process is not currently accounted for, because it is dissipated into the environment and we cannot put a price on it. That is why we have market failure on the price of carbon.

So what do the Government do to try to deal with that market failure?  They are left in a very difficult position. They try to change behaviour by announcing a reduction in targets, making piecemeal regulations as and when they become available, and picking innovation winners—we have a list, most recently hydrogen and modular new nuclear, to name but two. I very much hope the Government have got those expensive choices right. Based on the available evidence I believe that they have, but that is the point: only a properly functioning market finds the best way to allocate capital, with its invisible use of the combined knowledge of the sum of all the participants in that market. No Government can match that combined wisdom.

Our current approach to carbon pricing simply does not work. If we raise the cost of energy with our higher cost of carbon, our industry simply becomes uncompetitive, as Jim Shannon pointed out a moment ago. Manufacturing simply moves abroad, or it goes bust and its place is taken by the raft of imports from higher-carbon countries—in addition to the very high cost of carbon in the import process and transport—like China. The result is damaging to jobs. It is, of course, damaging to our business. It is very damaging to our balance of trade. It is very damaging to our tax base and it is damaging to the climate. All in all, it is a damaging disaster.

Border carbon adjustment can transform that process: charge imports from a high- carbon economy the same carbon cost as we impose on our domestic industry via a BCA and the problem is solved. There would be no incentive for our manufacturers to base production abroad, since the costs would be equalised. Foreign companies would no longer have an unfair trade advantage. In fact, it would provide them with a direct incentive to reduce carbon usage in their domestic environment to avoid corrective tariffs. From a policy perspective—I am using China as an example—the Chinese Government would have a choice: either their exports pay a carbon price at our border and the money goes to our Exchequer; or they create a carbon price in their domestic market and they get to keep the money themselves. There is, therefore, a really positive incentive internationally for carbon reduction and the benefits to be spread. After all, climate change knows no borders. Better still, using the same calculation for border carbon adjustment but this time in reverse, our own factories would get the benefit of a carbon cost rebate at the border when they export, making their exports both cheaper and more profitable, increasing our competitiveness already on the international market.

There are many ways that you can skin this particular cat, Madam Deputy Speaker. We can either design a system whereby all products coming in or out of the United Kingdom have their carbon contribution assessed, or, if that is considered to be too complex, we can take baby steps. We can start off by applying a BCA towards the five or six most carbon-intensive industries and then take it from there. We would start with steel, fertiliser, petrochemicals, aluminium and energy. I will take two examples from that list by way of explanation.

First of all, with steel, an independent research project has been undertaken to assess the impact of a border adjustment tariff on the steel industry. Its conclusions were that were we to implement a BCA in the United Kingdom, it would increase the competitiveness of UK steel against many of its international competitors, at the same time as raising for the Treasury a tax windfall of between £270 million and £850 million if that carbon price was set at between £50 and £75 per tonne.