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The role of economic warfare in understanding contemporary geopolitics

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Despite Fukuyama’s theses, the traditional war is not over: especially in Europe, from the former Yugoslavia to Ukraine. As for economic relations between states, these – with all due respect to the Austrian school – do not amount to “soft trade”. Indeed, as early as 1990, Edward Luttwak heralded the age of geoeconomics when Bernard Esambert published The World Economic War. German surpluses against French deficits, weak dollar against strong euro, difficult negotiations between the United States and the European Union on the subject of the transatlantic treaty, the world yesterday as today is an arena. Economic warfare is so pervasive that expression is a victim of its success. It is therefore necessary to precisely define this new theoretical and practical object, to evaluate its real scope and its mode of action.

It should be clear, looking carefully at the contemporary dynamics, to affirm that economic war is the daughter of globalization

Although economic warfare in the broadest sense of the term is not new, its contemporary form has relatively recent roots. We can consider that after the Second World War, with the revival of an international monetary system and the signing of the GATT agreements in 1947, the rules for commercial competition between largely national economies were established within the Western bloc. Thus, the economic struggles that have taken place in recent years have been confined to an arena of limited size.

Furthermore, when Bernard Esambert published Le Troisième Conflit mondial in 1968, he traced the contours of an economic war with positive virtues: not only did this “soft” war replace the real war in the West, but it was also a stimulus for industrialized countries, engaged in a profitable competition for all. Furthermore, the Cold War forced the nations of the Western bloc into a de facto solidarity that further limited the effects of their economic rivalries.

It was precisely this balance that was upset in 1991 with the fall of the USSR and the end of communism. From that moment on, nothing stood in the way of the capitalist and free trade model which, until then, represented only one of the two economic systems at work on the planet. Now the arena is global and hardly anyone challenges the rules of the game, but at the same time the end of the war does not bring down the politics of power; it moves them from the military and geopolitical terrain (clash of blocs, peripheral conflicts, etc.) to the economic and commercial terrain (rivalry between powers over resources, the struggle for market share, etc.). According to Luttwak, “in the future, fear of economic consequences could settle trade disputes, and certainly more political interventions motivated by powerful strategic reasons.” If Luttwak probably underestimated the importance that geopolitical issues would maintain, he underlined the new dimension of our globalization: that of economic competition between nations Far from thinking like the men of the Enlightenment that trade softens morals, it believes that trade is only one of the modes of war when its armed side weakens.

Winners of the Cold War, the United States was in fact the first to take stock of the change that the world was going through. Basically, the Cold War gave them the opportunity to subsidize entire segments of their economy.

But if at the beginning of the 90s, the geopolitical argument collapsed, the economic discourse remains in all its purity. In the same year, Secretary of State Warren Christopher officially declared that “economic security” was to be elevated to the top foreign policy priority of the United States of America.

In other words, the winners of the Cold War have officially declared economic war on the rest of the world. The perspective is certainly largely liberal; everyone has their chances and can win this game, but the discourse is ambiguous because it is tinged with the defense of national interests. In the end, it mixes both liberal and mercantilist rhetoric, principles hardly compatible in the eyes of economists but perfectly legitimate for politicians.

In order for a country to be fit to fight in economic warfare, it needs a state, that is – Esambert would say – a resolute warlord, who knows the profession of arms and who reduces the morale and spirit of conquest to the economy.

Yet in the 1980s and 1990s, in the era of neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus, the state had been mistreated; it was seen as an obstacle to economic development and therefore President Reagan was not afraid to say that “the problem is the state”. Financial globalization, the transnationalization of companies, the intensification of international trade have rung the death knell for this relic of the past. Not only has the state resisted the neoliberal potion, it is now making a comeback. The state continued to play its role of overseeing the private space by creating a favorable legal, fiscal and infrastructural environment for the economy. In our current context, states have also taken on the role of military leaders, to conquer markets and resources, both to secure their power and to enrich their businesses and their fellow citizens.

In fact, the state has a certain number of prerogatives or capabilities that companies are naturally lacking. The state can think long-term, finance long-term when companies prefer the short or medium term. Furthermore, it can implement expensive tools at the service of its companies to distinguish the sectors of the future, the fields in which they have an interest in investing; in short, the state has a far better view of the battlefield than any of its troops. The Japanese example of the MITI has a paradigmatic value, as demonstrated by the pioneering studies of the Paris school of economic warfare directed by Christian Harbulot.

It is also the state that guides the dynamics of tomorrow by setting goals: thus, the Lisbon strategy that the EU member countries adopted in 2000 intends to make the Union “the first knowledge economy” by 2010 by explicitly linking this goal to that of full employment. Only a state can tackle these kinds of tasks, the scope of which far exceeds the financing capabilities and motivations of a business.

States don’t wage wars without troops. These are businesses, large and small.

But what does all this mean specifically?

First of all, it concerns a simple but at the same time extremely delicate question in an era of globalization: the nationality of companies. Isn’t it an illusion to say that more and more multinational companies, owned by foreign capital, are American?

Indeed, economists have shown that, despite the logic of transnationalization, the idea of “corporate nationality” is not obsolete. First, because a number of strategic companies are protected by states: directly when they are shareholders indirectly when they are guarantors their independence from foreign companies. We recall, for example, that in 2006 the Bush administration forced the Dubai Port World company to sell to AIG International the management of the six large American ports carried out by the P&O company that DPW had purchased. Likewise, advertising firm China National Offshore Corporation was prevented in 2005 from acquiring the US company Unocal. What does this mean if not that states easily recognize national companies, even if their capitalization is now international?

In short, even in the era of the “Global Players”, we can speak of nationality of companies.

Secondly, we can assimilate the present large companies, even more so the multinationals, to the legions of the late Roman Empire; mixed, variegated, composed of Roman cadres and barbarian troops, they are nevertheless the army of the Empire. Today’s companies, despite their global character, still maintain a national foothold. Furthermore, the recent Peugeot bailout around an alliance between the family, the French state and the Chinese manufacturer Dongfeng illustrates well that the idea of a national company did not die with globalization, it is only more complex than in the past. .

Returning to contemporary economic warfare this can be read as a traditional conflict, with its war objectives. The first is to defensive carette: saving industrial jobs. This challenge has become an obsession as relocations or subcontracting to low-wage countries are draining our industrialized countries.

Why this obsession with industrial jobs in our outsourced world? It is because our post-industrial societies, in the sense that most of the GDP no longer comes from the secondary sector, are no less industrialized than they have ever been. Not only do industrial jobs generate tertiary employment, but there are also many that require a qualification. Bernard Esambert speaks of an “industry-service symbiosis” to designate this pair formed by the high-tech industry and the service sector that accompanies it. Losing the former to the advantage of the new industrial powers means losing the latter and risking regress, not to mention the risk of unemployment or underemployment, which no democracy can bear in the long run. Advocates of economic warfare therefore believe that industrial employment must be defended and even maintained . Beyond the economic debates about their cost-benefits, the destruction of jobs is difficult to accept in the eyes of voters and, therefore, decision makers.

The other objective of the war, decisive for the states, is no longer defense but the conquest of markets and scarce resources. Economic warfare scholars have clearly demonstrated the intensification of the war for the control of natural resources, mainly for the control of hydrocarbons.

Perhaps nothing better than this example illustrates in the eyes of its proponents the obviousness of economic warfare: oil is a scarce and limited resource. Every drop gained by one is lost by the other. Therefore, as it is the basis of development, it is necessary for each state to ensure a secure and continuous supply. The inexorable struggle that the United States and China are waging for African oil but also for the other resources of the subsoil of this continent is an example of this. Absent in Africa 25 years ago, China is now the third largest trading partner after the United States and France; for two thirds it imports oil, but also metals, cotton and precious stones.

This war for natural resources is the scene of a reversal of the balance of power between Western countries on the one hand and emerging and / or developing countries on the other. The rise of China, of the BRICS, the rise of sovereign wealth funds in the Arab oil exporting countries would demonstrate this. In economic warfare, resources are powerful ammunition. And everything suggests that this conflict will escalate.

The International Energy Agency estimates that energy needs will increase by 50% by 2030, in part due to Indian and Chinese growth. The search for raw materials will in fact become a crucial issue for the States. As early as 2007, the Committee on Critical Mineral Impacts on the US Economy published a report in which it lists eleven minerals that are particularly crucial to the American economy due to their scarcity, their need in high-tech industries … the more coveted, is rhodium, used in particular in catalytic converters, and found in Russia but also in South Africa, a much better ally than Moscow. Rare metal, today it is the subject of struggles in which states and multinationals fight side by side. As guarantor of the national economy, each State is called upon to draw up, in its own way, a list of the resources that are or will be essential for it.

The “scarce resources” also include companies that today more than ever are falling prey not only to their private counterparts but also to governments. As such, the crisis has facilitated the entry into the capital of very large companies in the countries of the South through powerful sovereign wealth funds. The large investment funds of the United Arab Emirates, in particular Dubai and Abu Dhabi, have invested extensively in favor of the economic crisis in prestigious companies in difficulty: EADS, AMD, Sony, Citigroup … The Chinese sovereign fund holds almost 10% by Morgan Stanley. As for the Singapore fund, it entered the equity of Merril Lynch at the same level. Here we find the idea of revolution in the North / South hierarchy: winning in the economic war is not a legacy. The newcomers are shaking up the old hierarchy. Saudi Arabia is estimated to be responsible for 5% of US GDP thanks to wealth creation made possible by the use of Arab oil. Suffice it to say that Riyadh has a strategic advantage over its powerful economic partner.

Finally, there is a scarce and strategic commodity that constitutes a relatively new objective of the war: information. It is now important that companies and states know their opponents, their exact technological level, their strategy, in order to be able to anticipate them. Sometimes we speak of cognitive warfare to refer to the advanced weapon of economic warfare. In fact, the acquisition of information with high added value is also essential for the development of the tango economic activity as much as the accumulation of financial capital and the coordination of human skills. If states now want to help their companies gain market share, they must equip themselves with economic intelligence programs, otherwise they will lag considerably behind in a form of struggle that appears increasingly crucial as all the immense theoretical and operational work done by Ecole du guerre economique founded by Chrustian Harbulot.

In short, our time is woven of contradictions; on the one hand, the states hold an official speech supporting, sometimes with nuances, a multilateralism supported by the main international institutions such as the UN, the WTO, the IMF. On the other hand, everyone can see that the states are developing quite different reasoning. The imperative of solidarity in the financial field advocated by the G20 t new response to the need not to lose market share in a context of tension. In the midst of the crisis, the logic of competitiveness requires the conquest of foreign markets.

It is up to Christian Harbulot to have clearly shown this shift from Cold War Manichaeism to the multilateral economic war that states are waging today. According to him, the ally / opponent pair replaced the partner / competitor one. This transformation of possible alliances is accompanied, according to Harbulot, by a reorganization of the field of partners and competitors in geographical terms. The two blocks of the Cold War would have succeeded three blocks: the first is the degraded space of the Western world from which we can possibly extract the United States, the second is the expanded room for maneuver of the new powers, the third, finally, is space of survival of other countries. Each of these spaces follows very different power strategies. Furthermore, the members of each block are not necessarily allies as we have just seen.

Therefore, any peremptory statement becomes impossible. The United States and China are waging a relentless war over Africa’s resources. But China, through the purchase of US Treasuries, is the country that allows the United States to live on credit. Another example, China and Taiwan are political enemies but economic partners.

If economic warfare is a struggle, it is based on weapons and countermeasures. In covert warfare, a large number of tools count as weapons. The first of all is undoubtedly training: in our constantly changing societies, initial training helps create a workforce or managers prepared for change.

Likewise, the importance given to research is fundamental. Since 2010, China has more researchers than the United States, although the latter enjoy, thanks to the practice of brain drain, the sharpest minds on the planet. In this context, public-private collaboration is fundamental: in the United States, the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 provides that patents financed with public funds – by universities or public research centers – are assigned mainly in the form of exclusive rights to private companies American.

In other words, in the eyes of states in economic warfare, the search for patents is truly a national affair, a guarantee of productivity, a decisive weapon in the perspective of a trade struggle between nations. These tools are at the service of competitiveness, this ability to face competition on external and internal markets. As for the attractiveness – which could be understood as the competitiveness of a territory – it is the object of particular attention by many states that the disputes between the European Commission and Ireland regarding Apple have brought to light.

The ultimate hidden weapon of warfare is economic intelligence. It is similar both to a weapon, which anticipates the enemy’s movement to surprise him and steal his victory, but also to a defense tactic because it anticipates enemy moves, practicing disinformation for example. The United States is the main player in this information war. We now know that the NSA, initially created in a counterintelligence logic during the Cold War, would have used the Echelon network to know the position of the European Union in 1994 during the final negotiations of the Uruguay Round. In 2014, the New York Times revealed that the agency had spied on an American law firm defending a foreign country in a trade dispute with the U.S. Information has become one of the key issues of the economic war.

As states move from covert warfare to open warfare, weapons change. These attacks can take the form of geoeconomic retaliation in response to a geopolitical crisis; this is for example the case in the fruit and vegetable embargo between the European Union and Russia.

Voluntary import restrictions also amount to retaliatory measures. The well-known example of the restrictions imposed by the United States on Japanese cars in the 1980s testifies to the violence of the conflict. Faced with rising Japanese car sales, Washington sought to protect the “Big Three”. Rather than proceed unilaterally, the US government has asked the Japanese to limit their exports. Tokyo preferred to negotiate this perfectly anti-liberal measure rather than run the risk of even more unfavorable restrictions being imposed: this is the voluntary restriction agreement of 1980.

A series of disputes between states led to the adoption of tariff peaks in retaliation; for example, the United States decided in January 2009 to triple tariffs on Roquefort in response to a ban on exports of hormone-containing beef in Europe. In each of these cases, the best offense was the defense.

When worried about avoiding frontal conflicts, states prefer an alternative approach which is to facilitate the assault of their companies on foreign markets. For this reason the political power is an ardent promoter of its companies. This ancient practice has been systematized in the United States in the form of “commercial diplomacy”. This is based on three principles: preparing the ground by liberalizing trade with the destination country; use economic intelligence, industrial and commercial intelligence to provide American companies with all the data on the ground to be conquered; finally, to set up ad hoc structures such as the War room. This offensive public strategy is entirely in the service of the private corporations that are the strength of the United States. It is in the same perspective that Washington has increased the number of bilateral free trade treaties: with most of the countries of Central America in the 2000s, with Morocco in 2006, South Korea in 2010.

Finally, there is one last weapon that, individually, is now almost the prerogative of a few emerging countries: sovereign wealth funds. Although they deny themselves, these funds take hold in sometimes strategic groups and help guide their strategy.

To cope with these dangers, those involved in economic warfare have developed policies that resemble shields or even counterattacks. In a context where customs barriers are historically low, there are other means to preserve its market: export subsidies, standards, favoritism given to national companies in one form or another (think of the Small Business Act which reserves some public procurement for SMEs) In short, all means are good.

So it is with money, which has long been – and continues to be – a defensive weapon in the hands of states, especially in the form of devaluation. The UK gave us a recent example of the geo-economic use that could be made of a currency: at the height of the crisis, London let the pound slip while the euro remained strong. In this way, British exports were stimulated. We could reproduce the analysis for the yuan or even the yen at a time when Shinzo Abe has launched a policy of monetary expansion.

For large Western states, it is primarily about protecting their markets at a time when old-fashioned protectionism is almost outlawed. For emerging countries, the stakes are different: by increasing the number of regulatory sources (state, international, private, public, etc.), they weaken the universal legal system designed by the dominant states. Paradoxically, the desire to unify world trade has led to a legal fragmentation of the latter.

The rules of trade have become a battleground in a few decades. Witness the emergence in France of the notion of “economic patriotism”. Spread out in 2005 by Dominique de Villepin, then Prime Minister, the doctrine of economic patriotism is based on the idea that it would be up to the state to defend companies considered to belong to strategic sectors. In practice, success is mixed: while Suez was married to GDF in 2008 to deal with a potential takeover by Italy’s Enel, Arcelor was absorbed by Mittal.

Looking at the world today, it is tempting to provocatively conclude that war has a bright future; economic warfare of course, but also traditional warfare. But there is also a more dramatic scenario, namely that tomorrow’s economic wars can degenerate into armed conflicts.

In short, yesterday as today, historical reality is an ocean of forces that are opposed to each other, in a dynamic that determines a perpetual flow that now leads to ascent now to decline.

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US Economic Turmoil: The Paradox of Recovery and Inflation

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The US economy has been a rollercoaster since the pandemic cinched the world last year. As lockdowns turned into routine and the buzz of a bustling life came to a sudden halt, a problem manifested itself to the US regime. The problem of sustaining economic activity while simultaneously fighting the virus. It was the intent of ‘The American Rescue Plan’ to provide aid to the US citizens, expand healthcare, and help buoy the population as the recession was all but imminent. Now as the global economy starts to rebound in apparent post-pandemic reality, the US regime faces a dilemma. Either tighten the screws on the overheating economy and risk putting an early break on recovery or let the economy expand and face a prospect of unrelenting inflation for years to follow.

The Consumer Price Index, the core measure of inflation, has been off the radar over the past few months. The CPI remained largely over the 4% mark in the second quarter, clocking a colossal figure of 5.4% last month. While the inflation is deemed transitionary, heated by supply bottlenecks coinciding with swelling demand, the pandemic-related causes only explain a partial reality of the blooming clout of prices. Bloomberg data shows that transitory factors pushing the prices haywire account for hotel fares, airline costs, and rentals. Industries facing an offshoot surge in prices include the automobile industry and the Real estate market. However, the main factors driving the prices are shortages of core raw materials like computer chips and timber (essential to the efficient supply functions of the respective industries). Despite accounting for the temporal effect of certain factors, however, the inflation seems hardly controlled; perverse to the position opined by Fed Chair Jerome Powell.

The Fed already insinuated earlier that the economy recovered sooner than originally expected, making it worthwhile to ponder over pulling the plug on the doveish leverage that allowed the economy to persevere through the pandemic. The main cause was the rampant inflation – way off the 2% targetted inflation level. However, the alluded remarks were deftly handled to avoid a panic in an already fragile road to recovery. The economic figures shed some light on the true nature of the US economy which baffled the Fed. The consumer expectations, as per Bloomberg’s data, show that prices are to inflate further by 4.8% over the course of the following 12 months. Moreover, the data shows that the investor sentiment gauged from the bond market rally is also up to 2.5% expected inflation over the corresponding period. Furthermore, a survey from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) suggested that net 47 companies have raised their average prices since May by seven percentage points; the largest surge in four decades. It is all too much to overwhelm any reader that the data shows the economy is reeling with inflation – and the Fed is not clear whether it is transitionary or would outlast the pandemic itself.

Economists, however, have shown faith in the tools and nerves of the Federal Reserve. Even the IMF commended the Fed’s response and tactical strategies implemented to trestle the battered economy. However, much averse to the celebration of a win over the pandemic, the fight is still not through the trough. As the Delta variant continues to amass cases in the United States, the championed vaccinations are being questioned. While it is explicable that the surge is almost distinctly in the unvaccinated or low-vaccinated states, the threat is all that is enough to drive fear and speculation throughout the country. The effects are showing as, despite a lucrative economic rebound, over 9 million positions lay vacant for employment. The prices are billowing yet the growth is stagnating as supply is still lukewarm and people are still wary of returning to work. The job market casts a recession-like scenario while the demand is strong which in turn is driving the wages into the competitive territory. This wage-price spiral would fuel inflation, presumably for years as embedded expectations of employees would be hard to nudge lower. Remember prices and wages are always sticky downwards!

Now the paradox stands. As Congress is allegedly embarking on signing a $4 trillion economic plan, presented by president Joe Bidden, the matters are to turn all the more complex and difficult to follow. While the infrastructure bill would not be a hard press on short-term inflation, the iteration of tax credits and social spending programs would most likely fuel the inflation further. It is true that if the virus resurges, there won’t be any other option to keep the economy afloat. However, a bustling inflationary environment would eventually push the Fed to put the brakes on by either raising the interest rates or by gradually ceasing its Asset Purchase Program. Both the tools, however, would risk a premature contraction which could pull the United States into an economic spiral quite similar to that of the deflating Japanese economy. It is, therefore, a tough stance to take whether a whiff of stagflation today is merely provisional or are these some insidious early signs to be heeded in a deliberate fashion and rectified immediately.

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Carbon Market Could Drive Climate Action

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Authors: Martin Raiser, Sebastian Eckardt, Giovanni Ruta*

Trading commenced on China’s national emissions trading system (ETS) on Friday. With a trading volume of about 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide or roughly 12 percent of the total global CO2 emissions, the ETS is now the world’s largest carbon market.

While the traded emission volume is large, the first trading day opened, as expected, with a relatively modest price of 48 yuan ($7.4) per ton of CO2. Though this is higher than the global average, which is about $2 per ton, it is much lower than carbon prices in the European Union market where the cost per ton of CO2 recently exceeded $50.

Large volume but low price

The ETS has the potential to play an important role in achieving, and accelerating China’s long-term climate goals — of peaking emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060. Under the plan, about 2,200 of China’s largest coal and gas-fired power plants have been allocated free emission rights based on their historical emissions, power output and carbon intensity.

Facilities that cut emissions quickly will be able to sell excess allowances for a profit, while those that exceed their initial allowance will have to pay to purchase additional emission rights or pay a fine. Putting a price tag on CO2 emissions will promote investment in low-carbon technologies and equipment, while carbon trading will ensure emissions are first cut where it is least costly, minimizing abatement costs. This sounds plain and simple, but it will take time for the market to develop and meaningfully contribute to emission reductions.
The initial phase of market development is focused on building credible emissions disclosure and verification systems — the basic infrastructure of any functioning carbon market — encouraging facilities to accurately monitor and report their emissions rather than constraining them. Consequently, allocations given to power companies have been relatively generous, and are tied to power output rather than being set at absolute levels.

Also, the requirements of each individual facility to obtain additional emission rights are capped at 20 percent above the initial allowance and fines for non-compliance are relatively low. This means carbon prices initially are likely to remain relatively low, mitigating the immediate financial impact on power producers and giving them time to adjust.

For carbon trading to develop into a significant policy tool, total emissions and individual allowances will need to tighten over time. Estimates by Tsinghua University suggest that carbon prices will need to be raised to $300-$350 per ton by 2060 to achieve carbon neutrality. And our research at the World Bank suggest a broadly applied carbon price of $50 could help reduce China’s CO2 emissions by almost 25 percent compared with business as usual over the coming decade, while also significantly contributing to reduced air pollution.

Communicating a predictable path for annual emission cap reductions will allow power producers to factor future carbon price increases into their investment decisions today. In addition, experience from the longest-established EU market shows that there are benefits to smoothing out cyclical fluctuations in demand.

For example, carbon emissions naturally decline during periods of lower economic activity. In order to prevent this from affecting carbon prices, the EU introduced a stability reserve mechanism in 2019 to reduce the surplus of allowances and stabilize prices in the market.

Besides, to facilitate the energy transition away from coal, allowances would eventually need to be set at an absolute, mass-based level, which is applied uniformly to all types of power plants — as is done in the EU and other carbon markets.

The current carbon-intensity based allocation mechanism encourages improving efficiency in existing coal power plants and is intended to safeguard reliable energy supply, but it creates few incentives for power producers to divest away from coal.

The effectiveness of the ETS in creating appropriate price incentives would be further enhanced if combined with deeper structural reforms in power markets to allow competitive renewable energy to gain market share.

As the market develops, carbon pricing should become an economy-wide instrument. The power sector accounts for about 30 percent of carbon emissions, but to meet China’s climate goals, mitigation actions are needed in all sectors of the economy. Indeed, the authorities plan to expand the ETS to petro-chemicals, steel and other heavy industries over time.

In other carbon intensive sectors, such as transport, agriculture and construction, emissions trading will be technically challenging because monitoring and verification of emissions is difficult. Faced with similar challenges, several EU member states have introduced complementary carbon taxes applied to sectors not covered by an ETS. Such carbon excise taxes are a relatively simple and efficient instrument, charged in proportion to the carbon content of fuel and a set carbon price.

Finally, while free allowances are still given to some sectors in the EU and other more mature national carbon markets, the majority of initial annual emission rights are auctioned off. This not only ensures consistent market-based price signals, but generates public revenue that can be recycled back into the economy to subsidize abatement costs, offset negative social impacts or rebalance the tax mix by cutting taxes on labor, general consumption or profits.

So far, China’s carbon reduction efforts have relied largely on regulations and administrative targets. Friday’s launch of the national ETS has laid the foundation for a more market-based policy approach. If deployed effectively, China’s carbon market will create powerful incentives to stimulate investment and innovation, accelerate the retirement of less-efficient coal-fired plants, drive down the cost of emission reduction, while generating resources to finance the transition to a low-carbon economy.

(Martin Raiser is the World Bank country director for China, Sebastian Eckardt is the World Bank’s lead economist for China, and Giovanni Ruta is a lead environmental economist of the World Bank.)

(first published on China Daily via World Bank)

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The EU wants to cut emissions, Bulgaria and Eastern Europe will bear the price

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In the last few years, the European Union has been going above and beyond in dealing with climate change. Clearly, this is far from being a case of disinterested endeavour to safeguard the planet and the environment. On the contrary, the EU’s efforts aim at reinforcing its “normative power”.  In effect, the EU has gained some clout on the international stage, even vis-à-vis faraway countries like Vietnam and China. Yet, in doing so the Union embroiled in the apparent rush for more and more ambitious climate standards and targets. Therefore, Brussels needs to start acting and deliver on its promises to keep staying ahead of the pack. Even more so given US President Biden’s strengthened engagement with friends and foes alike on the climate and human rights.

Last week, the European Commission manifested its acknowledgment of this need by unveiling the Fit for 55 (FF55) growth strategy. Overall, this new, beefed-up Green Deal should reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 55% of their 1990 level by 2030. In some analysts’ view, the FF55 plan is a game changer in the long-term race towards climate neutrality alas. In fact, it could “both deepen and broaden the decarbonisation of Europe’s economy to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.” Moreover, they expect the FF55’s 13 measures to generate a number of positive ripple effects across EU economies.

True, wanting to reduce greenhouse gases significantly by 2030 and reaching net-zero-emission by 2050 goal is commendable under many regards. Still, the FF55 includes a number of measures that could impact ordinary people’s life massively across Europe. Nevertheless, the 27 Member States of the EU are responsible for as little as 8% of global emissions. As such, it is necessary to take a deeper look at how the FF55 will affect different countries and demographics.

The transition’s social cost

The realisation that reduction of capitalism’s dependence on fossil fuels will have serious socio-economic consequences is not at all new. Contrariwise, scholars and politicians have been outspoken about an indisputable “conflict between jobs and the environment”, since the early 1990s. Together, the pandemic-induced recession and the signing of the Paris Accord have brought the notion back on the centre stage.

Factually, pushing the energy transition entails facing mass lay-offs, generalised workforce retraining and taxes hikes on ordinary consumers. For instance, these hardships’ seriousness is evident in the progressive abandonment of coal mining for energy generation in the US. Moreover, the energy transition requires strong popular backing in order to be effective. Yet, measures pursued to achieve environmentally friendly growth tend to generate strong, grassroot opposition. Most recently, France’s gilets jaunes protests shows that environmental policies generate social discontent by disfavouring middle and lower classes disproportionately.

The poorest families and countries will bear the costs

One of the FF55’s main policy innovation regards the creation of a carbon trading market for previously exempt sectors. Namely, companies working int the transport and buildings sectors, be they public or private, will have to follow new rules. As it happened in the energy industry before, each company will have to respect a “carbon allowance”. Basically, it is an ‘authorisation to pollute’ which companies can buy from each other — but the total cannot increase. Despite all claims of just transition, this and other measures will have a gigantic, re-distributional effect within and between countries. And it will be of markedly regressive character, meaning that poorer families and countries will pay more.

Taxing transport emission is regressive

Historically, these sectors were trailing behind most others when it comes to decarbonisation for a variety of reasons. First of all, the previous emission trading system did not include them. Moreover, these are far from being well-functioning markets. As a result, even if the cost of emissions was to rise, enterprises and consumer will not react as expected.

Thus, even as they face higher costs, companies will keep utilising older, traditional vehicle and construction technologies. With taunting reverberations on those poorer consumers, who cannot afford to buy an electric car or stop using public transport. Hence, they “will face a higher carbon price while locked into fossil-fuel-based systems with limited alternatives.” Moreover, the EU could worsen these effects by trying to reduce the emission fees on truck-transported goods. Indeed, the commission is proposing a weight-based emission standard that would collaterally favour SUVs over smaller combustion-engine car and motorbikes. 

In a nutshell, higher taxes and fee will strike lower-class consumers, who spend more of their incomes for transportation. Even assuming these households would like to switch to low-emission cars and buildings, current market prices will make it impossible. In fact, all these technologies ten to have low usage costs, but very high costs of acquisition. For instance, the cheapest Tesla sells at over €95,000, whereas a Dacia Sandero “starts at just under €7,000.”

Eastern Europe may not be willing to pay

At this point, it is clear that the FF55 plan will deal a blow to ongoing efforts to reduce inequalities. In addition, one should not forget that EU Member States are as different amongst them as they are within themselves. Yet, the EU is not simply going to tax carbon in sectors that inevitably expose poorer consumers the most. But in doing so it would impose a single price on 27 very diverse societies and economies. Thus, the paradox of having the poorest countries in the EU (i.e., Central- and South-Eastern Europe) pay the FF55’s bill.

To substantiate this claim, one needs to look no further than at a few publicly available data. First, as Figure 2 shows, there is an inverse relation between a country’s wealth and consumers’ expenditures on transport services. Thus, not only do poorer people across the EU spend more on transport, poorer countries do as well. Hence, under the FF55, Bulgarians, Croatians, Romanians and Poles will pay most of the fees and taxes on carbon emission.

Additionally, one should consider that there is also a strict inverse relation between carbon emissions and the minimum national wage. In fact, looking at Figure 3 one sees that countries with lower minimum wages tend to emit more carbon dioxide. On average, countries with a minimum salary of €1 lower emit almost 4.5mln tonnes of carbon dioxide more. But differences in statutory national wages explain almost 32% of the cross-country variation in emissions. So, 1.5 of those extra tonnes are somehow related to lower minimum salaries and, therefore, lower living standards.

The EU’s quest for a just transition: Redistribution or trickle down?

Hence, the pursual of a ‘just’ transitionhas come to mean ensuring quality jobs emerge from these economic changes. However, many of the FF55’s 13 initiatives may worsen disparities both within countries and, more importantly, between them. Thus, the EU has been trying to pre-empt the social losses that would inevitably come about.

From the Just Transition Fund to the Climate Social Fund

In this regard, the European Union went a step forward most countries by creating the Just Transition Fund in May. That is, the EU decided to finance a mix of grants and public-sector loans which aims to provide support to territories facing serious socio-economic challenges arising from the transition towards climate neutrality [… and] facilitate the implementation of the European Green Deal, which aims to make the EU climate-neutral by 2050.

Along these lines, the FF55 introduces a Climate Social Fund (CSF) that will provide “funding […] to support vulnerable European citizens.” The fund will provide over €70bln to support energy investments, and provide direct income support for vulnerable households. The revenues from the selling of carbon allowances to the transport and building sectors should fund most of the CSF. If necessary, the Member States will provide the missing portion.

The EU Commission may give the impression of having design the CSF to favour poorer households and countries. However, it may actually be a false impression. In fact, it is clear that the entire carbon pricing initiative will impact poorer household and countries more strongly. However, only a fourth of the carbon pricing system’s revenues will go to fund the CSF. The remaining portion will finance other FF55 programmes, most of which have a negative impact on poorer communities. Thus, despite the CSF, the final effect of the entire FF55 will be a net redistribution upwards.

Stopping a redistribution to the top

Nevertheless, there is a way to fix the FF55 so that it can work for poorer households and lower-income countries. Given that the CSF is too small for the challenge it should overcome, its total amount should be increased. In fact, the purpose of higher carbon pricing is in any event not to raise revenue but to direct market behaviour towards low-carbon technologies—there is thus a strong argument for redistributing fully the additional revenues

Hence, the largest, politically sustainable share of carbon-pricing revenues from transportation and housing should ideally go to the CSF. In addition, the Commission should remove all the proposed provision that divert CSF money away from social compensation scheme. In fact, poorer families will not gain enough from subsidies to electric car, charging stations and the decarbonisation of housing. One contrary, “using the fund to support electric vehicles would disproportionally favour rich households.”

Finally, the allocation of CSF money to various member states should follow rather different criteria from the current ones. In fact, the Commission already intends to consider a number of important such as: total population and its non-urban share; per capita, gross, national income; share of vulnerable households; and emissions due to fuel combustion per household. But these efforts to look out for the weakest strata in each country could backfire. In fact, according to some calculations, a Member State with lower average wealth and lower “within-country inequality could end up benefiting less than a rich member state with high inequality.”

Conclusion

A number of well-known, respected economist have been arguing that environmental policies should account for social fallouts attentively. Goals such as emission reduction and net-zero economies require strong popular support in order for the transformation to succeed. Or at least, the acquiescence of a majority of the public. Otherwise, the plans of well-intentioned and opportunistic governments alike will derail. After all, this is the main lesson of the currently widespread protest against the mandating of ‘Covid passes’ and vaccines.

If the FF55 will deal poorer households a devastating blow, social unrest may worsen — fast. But as long as it will also hurt Eastern European countries as a whole, there is a chance. Hopefully, European parliamentarians from riotous Hungary or Poland will oppose the FF55 in its current shape. Perhaps, in a few years everyone will be thankful for these two countries strenuous resistance to EU bureaucracy. Or else, richer countries may force Central- and South-Eastern Europe to swallow a bitter medicine. Even though, whatever happens, Europe alone cannot and will not save the planet.

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