The Trump administration has proposed slapping a 100 percent duty on all sorts of products imported from France in retaliation for the country’s Digital Services Tax that impacts a number of U.S.-based technology companies like Google and Amazon.
If enacted, these new tariffs carry some interesting side benefits for Americans who are concerned with an issue that President Trump has called a hoax. Yep, I’m talking about climate change.
The fact is that effectively doubling the price of imported French cheese, butter, wine, soap, cosmetics and porcelain kitchen and tableware means less of them will be flown or shipped to American shores. It’s possible we could also see similar measures taken against another big cheese importer, Italy.
Importing less cheese across the Atlantic means less greenhouse gas emissions. Cheese is one food with a rather intense carbon footprint, and importing it via air increases its footprint by nearly fifty percent according to report from the Environmental Working Group. Of course, most cheese is imported via the ocean, which increases its footprint by only about a half a percent.
The point is not that taxing brie and Camembert is going to make a big dent in climate change, but reducing the demand for imported cheese can’t hurt.
More broadly, Trump’s trade war tactics are rooted in a protectionist impulse that’s probably better for the environment on balance if it discourages consumption of international goods in favor of domestic products or just less consumption in general. Why not get some stylish vintage China rather than some new European import? Oh, and that brie was going to go right to your mid-section anyhow.
What’s interesting about Trump’s trade war tactics more broadly is that they open up trade as a new means of pressuring governments to take action on climate. By taking up economic arms on trade, Trump is ironically letting a genie out of the bottle that might grant environmental activists who oppose him a few wishes.
Before Trump, global leaders were generally more reticent to open the Pandora’s Box of economic conflict. But now that this new weapon has been laid on the table, armed and with the safety off, it can be picked up and used for other means.
“Trade has powerful potential,” Aaron Cosbey of the International Institute for Sustainable Development told Time earlier this year.
European leaders have proposed taxing Brazilian beef as a means of pressuring the country’s leadership into better stewardship of the Amazon, for example.
In a commentary in Nature last year, a team of academics suggested that other countries could retaliate against Trump’s tariffs with “border carbon adjustments” that targets countries that are not party to the Paris climate agreement. The idea is that the US follows through with pulling out of the Paris agreement, a coalition of countries could impose a tax on American imports based on the carbon output created through their manufacture.
“Rather than prolonging the current spiral of tariff tit-for-tat, countries should rally and turn this incipient trade war into an opportunity to ratchet up climate ambition,” the authors conclude.
The consequences of trade wars are complicated. They might reduce growth and consumption, which is generally a win for the climate and environment, but they can also increase the cost of things like solar panels, which obviously isn’t great if you care about climate.
But if there’s a lot less brie on store shelves next year, try not to mind too much.