Could the EU impose a carbon tax on US goods to pressure Trump?

France's ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy proposed an EU-wide carbon tax on all US goods if US president-elect Donald Trump goes through with his promise to pull out of the Paris Agreement. But how feasible is that plan?

It was a historic moment: in December 2015, almost 200 nations agreed to a global climate agreement to phase out greenhouse gases in the second half of the century. The agreement emerged from drawn-out negotiations at the COP21 climate summit in Paris.

Nature and Environment | 15.11.2016

Virtually every country in the world, including the two biggest carbon emitters - China and the United States - promised to cap greenhouse gases in order to keep global warming below maximum 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

But now, the deal is in danger, with US president-elect Donald Trump during his campaign having pledged to "cancel" the Paris deal. Trump would likely abandon President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

French payback

At this year's climate talks in Marrakesh, or COP22 - where representatives from across the world are meeting to hammer out the details of how to enact the Paris Agreement - French President Francois Hollande called on the United States to respect the Paris Agreement, saying it is "irreversible in law and in fact. In addition, it is irreversible in our minds."

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"The US, the largest economic power in the world, the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, must respect the commitments they have undertaken," he said.

His predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, went a step further. In an interview with French TV station "TF1", he proposed a European carbon tax against American imports if Trump really were to extract the US from its obligations under the Paris Agreement.

"I will demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax at its border, a tax of 1 to 3 percent, for all products coming from the United States, if the United States doesn't apply environmental rules that we are imposing on our companies," he said.

Europe could no longer be "weak" or "naive," he added, calling for countries to use more products and materials made in European states. 

Both Hollande and Sarkozy may run in France's presidential elections next year.

How feasible is Sarkozy's claim?

Scott Lincicome, an international trade attorney with the Cato Institute, a public policy research organization, took to Twitter to dismiss Sarkozy's proposal.

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The French think tank "La Fabrique Ecologique" had similar reservations, and told economic daily "Les Echos" that Sarkozy's idea, according to a 2009 WTO report, would only be compatible with international trade rules under certain conditions.

These include high carbon intensity and easily identifiable carbon content - which would make implementation of an EU-wide tax difficult.

Germanwatch, a German environmental nonprofit organization, told DW in an interview that legally, Sarkozy's proposal would very likely be possible - even though it would need far more deliberation and development.

Thinking bigger

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Caspar says a carbon tax would be stronger if it came from a worldwide coalition of countries

However, more effective would be a carbon tax that came from a coalition of countries around the world - including China - and not just the EU, Oldag Caspar, team leader for German and EU low-carbon policy at Germanwatch, told DW.

"It would be a much stronger and more powerful signal if it came from a range of powerful countries united across the world," Caspar said. This would make it clear that the world is unified on the climate front - "then Trump and his team wouldn't be able to spin this move against the EU," Caspar added.

However, he stressed that Germanwatch currently does not expect the US to actually back out of the Paris Agreement.

"Nothing has been decided yet" with the Trump administration, Caspar pointed out, including on climate policy. "It's very likely that the US is moving into the wrong direction for itself and the world - but how bad the situation really is is not clear yet."

Nature and Environment

Gray zone

"Trump must choose whether he will be a President remembered for putting America and the world on a path to climate disaster, or for listening to the American public and keeping us on a path to climate progress. Trump better choose wisely, otherwise - we can guarantee him the hardest fight of his life every step of the way.” - Michael Brune, Executive Director, The Sierra Club

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Dry reality

"Today is a bad day for international climate policy. That a climate change denier can be elected as the most powerful man in the world will make efforts to reduce emissions and secure adequate funding for adaptation measures all the more difficult... The international community needs reliable partners for ambitious climate policies." - Sabine Minninger, climate advisor for Brot für die Welt

Nature and Environment

Out of control

"The Paris Agreement was signed and ratified not by a President, but by the United States itself. As a matter of international law, and as a matter of human survival, the nations of the world can, must, and will hold the United States to its climate commitments." - Jean Su from California-based Center for Biological Diversity

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Green solutions

"We know that yesterday's elections are undoubtedly going to affect the tone of the negotiations, but we know the task we have in front of us remains the same: that we must continue to keep our aim and our focus on the long-term that the countries set for themselves in the Paris Agreement." - Mariana Panuncio-Feldman, World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Senior Director of International Climate Cooperation

Nature and Environment

Slow death

"For communities in the global south, the U.S. citizens' choice to elect Donald Trump seems like a death sentence. We are suffering the effects of climate change after years of inaction by rich countries... and with an unhinged climate change denier in the White House, the relatively small progress made is under threat." - Wilfred D'Costa, Asian Peoples' Movement on Debt and Development

Nature and Environment

Opening the floodgates

"President-elect Donald Trump's stance on global warming is well known. Ironically, he contributed to the popularity of our recent 'Turn down the heat'-report series for the World Bank by attacking it on Twitter. Yet apart from this, science cannot expect any positive climate action from him." - Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

Nature and Environment

Washed up?

"It's clear that Donald Trump is about to be one of the most powerful people in the world, but even he does not have the power to change the laws of physics... Climate change has become a geopolitical issue of the top order and no country can be perceived as not doing its fair share on climate without serious consequences for its standing in the world." - Alden Meyer, Union of Concerned Scientists

Nature and Environment

A burning issue

"As a young woman and first-time voter I will not tolerate Trump's denialism of the action needed for climate justice. Our country must undergo a systemic change and just transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy within my lifetime. The next four years are critical for getting on the right pathway." - Becky Chung, the youth network SustainUS.

Nature and Environment

Time to be clean

"The fact of climate change is not changed by what happened last night. At this very historic moment, it is important to remind ourselves that we were in the wilderness before and progress was possible. Leaders across the world will expect the US to honor its commitment and they won't wait in the race to the renewable energy future." - Li Shuo, Greenpeace China

Nature and Environment

Shrinking opportunities

“Donald Trump is the newly elected President of the United States. As of today, the Paris Agreement is an even stronger signal against denying reality and for global cooperation to solve the pressing problems of the world... You cannot ignore the facts." - Christoph Bals, Policy Director of Germanwatch

Nature and Environment

Powerful force

“Trump will try and slam the brakes on climate action, which means we need to throw all of our weight on the accelerator... We need the rest of the world to charge ahead and look beyond the White House to partner with civil society, businesses, and local governments who are still committed to climate action... Our work becomes much harder now, but it’s not impossible.” -

Nature and Environment

Growing concern

"Africa is already burning. The election of Trump is a disaster for our continent. The United States, if it follows through on its new President's rash words about withdrawing from the international climate regime, will become a pariah state in global efforts for climate action." - Geoffrey Kamese from Friends of the Earth Africa

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