WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Wednesday sent a proposal to the European Union suggesting the creation of an international consortium that would promote trade in metals produced with less carbon emissions, while imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum from China and elsewhere, according to a copy viewed by The New York Times.
The document, a concept paper drafted by the Office of the United States Trade Representative, provides the first concrete look at a new type of trade arrangement that the Biden administration views as a cornerstone of its approach to trade policy.
The proposed group, known as the Global Arrangement on Sustainable Steel and Aluminum, would wield the power of American and European markets to try to bolster domestic industries in a way that also mitigated climate change. To do so, member countries would jointly impose a series of tariffs against metals produced in environmentally harmful ways.
The levies would be aimed at China and other countries that did not join the group. Countries that did join would enjoy more favorable trade terms among themselves, especially for steel and aluminum produced more cleanly.
To join the arrangement, countries would have to ensure that their steel and aluminum industries met certain emissions standards, according to the document. Governments would also have to commit to not overproduce steel and aluminum, which has pushed down global metal prices, and to limit activity by state-owned enterprises, which are often used to funnel subsidies to foreign metal makers. While the concept paper does not mention China, these requirements appear likely to bar it from becoming a member.
The United States and European Union have been in talks about a climate-related trade deal for the steel and aluminum industries since last year. No U.S. trade agreement has ever included specific targets on carbon emissions, and negotiators have had much ground to cover to try to reconcile the varying U.S. and E.U. economic approaches to mitigating climate change.
It is unclear what type of reception the proposal, which is still in its early stages, will receive from European leaders, as well as whether U.S. industry and politicians will support the idea. An E.U. official declined to comment on Wednesday on the details of an active negotiation, but said the two sides were discussing ways to continue and deepen their work on the arrangement.
In recent weeks, trade tensions between the United States and Europe have risen to their highest levels since President Biden entered office, with leaders sparring over U.S. legislation aimed at encouraging the production of electric vehicles in North America. European leaders say the measures will put their industries at a disadvantage and have demanded changes that they say unfairly exclude European firms.
A senior trade official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the paper was not yet public, said that the spat over electric vehicles was unlikely to spill over into negotiations over steel and aluminum, and that the governments were closely aligned on the goal of taking carbon intensity into account when it came to trade.
After a meeting with European officials outside Washington this week, Katherine Tai, the U.S. trade representative, called the steel and aluminum effort “one of the most consequential things that we’re working on between the U.S. and the E.U. with respect to trade.” She said it was “on track” to meet a previous goal of completion by next year.
“It is an important part of the track record that we have, Washington to Brussels, in terms of taking some of the most challenging issues of our time, some of the things that have been really challenging between us, and demonstrating that we can exercise leadership with a vision for the future,” Ms. Tai said during a news conference Monday.
Valdis Dombrovskis, the European commissioner for trade, said the methods that the United States and Europe were developing to measure the carbon footprint of steel and aluminum could be expanded to other products, as part of a new trans-Atlantic initiative on sustainable trade that the governments had agreed to launch.
“It will provide a common language for understanding many things,” he said.
It’s also unclear how much support the plan will have from domestic makers of steel and aluminum. While some have voiced support for the broader strategy, company executives and labor union leaders are still reviewing the plans, and say the potential impact on U.S. industry would hinge on details that had yet to be determined.
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The U.S. steel industry is already among the cleanest in the world, as a result of the country’s stronger environmental standards and a focus on recycling scrap metal. The agreement is designed to capitalize on those advantages and help American companies withstand competition from heavily subsidized steel and aluminum manufacturers in China and elsewhere.
But the United States is also home to many industries that buy foreign steel and aluminum to make into other products. They could object that the move would increase their costs.
If the United States and Europe move forward with the structure, there is likely to be an intense fight over where tariffs are set and how carbon emissions are measured.
The development of a method for figuring out the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the production of any particular product is still in the early stages, and much more data would need to be gathered at the level of specific products and companies, people familiar with the plans said.
Both the United States and Europe have expressed interest in expanding the consortium’s membership to any country that can meet its high standards. But the arrangement could rankle American allies in the short term, if countries like Japan and South Korea are initially left out.
The measure could also trigger retaliation from China, or be challenged at the World Trade Organization, which includes China and requires its members to treat one another equally in trade.
It’s also still unclear what legal authority the Biden administration would use to impose the tariffs. The senior trade official said the Biden administration hoped to involve Congress in setting up the policy. But analysts speculated that the administration could also resort to the same national security-related executive authority that the Trump administration used in imposing its steel and aluminum tariffs.
And while it will please the administration’s allies in labor unions and environmental advocacy groups, the proposal is likely to disappoint advocates of freer trade, who had hoped the Biden administration would reject the more protectionist approach of the Trump administration. Instead of getting rid of the global levies on steel and aluminum that the Trump administration introduced in 2018, this effort would replace them with a new global system of tariffs structured around climate concerns.
The concept paper proposes a tiered system of tariffs that would rise with the level of carbon emitted in the production of a particular steel or aluminum good. Additional tariffs would be levied on any product coming from countries outside the consortium.
The tariff rate would start at 0 for the cleanest products from member countries. Beyond that, the paper does not specify rates, instead representing them as X, Y or Z.
The proposal to impose tariffs on steel from China and other countries as part of the arrangement was previously reported by Bloomberg.
The thresholds for the tariff rates, and for membership in the consortium, are designed to increase over time to encourage countries to continue cleaning up their industries. The arrangement would “incentivize industry globally to decarbonize as a condition of market access,” the paper says.
Todd Tucker, the director of industrial policy and trade at the Roosevelt Institute, compared the approach to “a carbon tariff imposed on countries that are outside the carbon club.”
The United States and European Union appear to be going for “a higher-ambition route” to address global steel trade, Mr. Tucker said. “What that means is leveraging the power of the U.S. and European markets to drive decarbonization in the global steel market.”
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