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Border Carbon Adjustment Tariffs and Decarbonisation

Volume 686: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T.C. Davies.)

Border carbon adjustment: it may not trip off the tongue, but this is not a dull subject. This policy is the stuff that dreams are made of.

I ask hon. Members to imagine that, as they settle down in their beds, they start to wonder how we could create the economic environment for levelling up in our manufacturing heartlands, giving them a low-carbon head start on the rest of the world. As they turn over and start to count the fluffy sheep jumping over a fence, they catch sight of a free market that naturally seeks out the most effective way to reach carbon net zero and deliver on the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan. Finally, just as they drift off to sleep, they glimpse, as in a glass darkly, a Government leading the world at COP26, achieving an international approach that brings co-operation and rapprochement with our European and American friends and allies. Could this be real, or must it evermore remain but a dream?

Well, this is no dream, and we can turn it into reality with a border carbon adjustment. We know we need to reduce carbon to net zero by 2050, and centuries of experience have taught us that the free market is without equal in being able to solve challenging economic problems such as this. Yet, right now, our free market stands helplessly by, its creativity and innovation useless.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter forward. He is right about the Prime Minister’s statement on environmental issues. Does he agree that we now have the potential to make a real and lasting change for the better by implementing environmental changes, but that we must also be aware that the pressure on businesses must allow them to continue to operate and not put them out of business? There is a balance to be got, I believe, and we have an obligation not only to the industry, but to the environment to get it right.

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 the hon. Member for Strangford (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.

My hon. Friend is making an incredibly sophisticated argument. On international competition, can he tell us what other countries are doing? For example, is the EU considering something along these lines?

My hon. Friend has anticipated a point in my speech

that I was coming to in a few minutes. He is absolutely right that, just in July this year, the EU started a formal consultation on the implementation of the border carbon adjustment process for the entire European Union—and not just there, but he will have to wait a moment or two before I come on to the other exciting news.

Let us look at steel. We can get a huge amount of tax benefit, plus increased competition, that will give a fair, competitive advantage to our domestic steel.

I commend my hon. Friend and his campaign for border carbon adjustment payments, which makes absolute sense. There is no reason why people who are not green should get a competitive advantage over those countries that are leading in the battle to become carbon neutral. My question is a somewhat technical one: we have a very complex economy, how do we work out which products need border carbon adjustment payments and which ones do not, or do we just focus on one key industry, or do we try to do it across the board?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The answer is that there are many different ways that we could approach it. The simplest would be to choose the five or six key carbon-heavy industries and start with them. As we get more knowledge of how to implement this kind of scheme, we could spread out to the wider economy. I suggest that the best way to do that would be to look at the carbon-emitting credentials of the energy market in the third country and assess in broad terms what its carbon contribution is. For example, in China, the coal contribution to the energy mix is between 70% and 80% and we would use that as the basis for the carbon contribution of its imports. When we get a bit more sophisticated, we could look at giving rebates to individual businesses that can demonstrate that they have a low-carbon approach despite the high-carbon attitude of their country as a whole. That would benefit behaviour and would not be protectionist, but would merely be a fair assessment of the carbon cost of transactions.

Moving on to energy, we naturally assume that we create all the energy that we use in this country domestically, but that is not the case. On average, we import, via undersea interconnectors, about 7% of the electricity that we use in this country. Members may recall that, last May, we trumpeted in the press that we had a two-week period in which we were coal free. We had coal-free electricity for two weeks. That was very exciting, but what the newspapers failed to mention was that, during that two-week period, we imported from Holland 40 GW of coal-fired electricity. The reason that we did that was not that we lacked generating capacity in the United Kingdom, but that it was cheaper to import coal-fired electricity from mainland Europe than it was to use our own. The reason why it was cheaper was that it was entirely tax-free, whereas we imposed a carbon tax on the generation of our own domestic electricity. Unbelievably, we actually incentivise the importation of high-carbon coal-generated electricity at the expense of our domestic manufacturing processes. How can that be right? A border carbon adjustment would sort that out in a jiffy.

What single better way is there to forward this Government’s levelling-up agenda than by putting in place the economic conditions for the market to want to re-industrialise in the UK, and all that with no need for Government subsidies. In fact, not only does it not require Government subsidies but it will actually produce an annual windfall for the Treasury year after year. Working out how big that windfall might be has a number of imponderables in it, but the Grantham Research Institute of Climate Change and the Environment has produced a report on this and, again, using the assessment of a carbon price between £50 and £75 a tonne, starting in 2020 and working up towards 2030, it assessed that the gross amount that the Treasury could recover under this process would max out at £36.7 billion a year. I stress that that is the gross amount. Members may well take the view that, rather like VAT, this is a tax that is consumer based and would impact poorer households disproportionately as a percentage of their gross income. The Government might very well want to use some of that £36.7 billion to cushion the blow and to make it more acceptable for lower-income families, perhaps by investing in insulation for their houses or other measures.

My hon. Friend is making a fascinating speech—despite starting off talking about sheep, he has managed to keep everyone’s enthusiastic attention throughout. A lot of emissions-intensive British industries will already find it difficult to compete in the global marketplace. As we begin to encourage the use of carbon capture and clean hydrogen by heavy industry, they will face higher production costs. Would a border carbon adjustment enable heavy industry to decarbonise while preventing job losses, and is that something the Treasury would also find attractive?

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head, because one of the key benefits of a border carbon adjustment is that it would allow us to decarbonise, and allow our heavy industry to accept the pain of higher energy costs, therefore letting the market work in our domestic market to incentivise the development of lower-carbon technology, while at the same time protecting it from being undercut by countries that are taking a little longer to go on the low-carbon journey.

We are not going to be spending money; we are going to be making money. That money could be used as the Treasury knows best. It does not mean that the money is taken out of the economy, because it could be put straight back in—in productivity-enhancing tax cuts, I hope, but that is up to the Treasury.

Best of all—I have saved the best till last—by freeing up the ability to price domestic carbon emissions at a realistic, behaviour-changing level, we can unleash the magic of the free market to seek out the most efficient solutions to low-carbon production. We do not need the Government to pick winners and subsidise industry once a market is working properly. Give a price to carbon, and that is exactly what we will create: a many-headed monster of innovation, entrepreneurialism, dynamism and efficient, productive capital growing our low-carbon future.

This future, if we are brave enough to embrace it before other nations, rather than just following, and if we are bold enough to allow the reshaping of the economy by demand rather than by direction, will equip our industry as leaders in low-carbon manufacturing. They will be leaders because they will be swimming in their natural element, whereas their international competitors will still be struggling to react to the short-term Government green initiatives and schemes that we all currently suffer from. It is a lead that could generate exports and growth in this country.

What is stopping us from delivering on the Prime Minister’s vision of a low-carbon, dynamic economy? Some worry about a protectionism challenge at the World Trade Organisation, but with a BCA applied in an open and transparent manner, nothing could be further from the truth. This policy is about removing unfair competition, not creating it. In any event, WTO rules expressly allow for tariffs whose purpose is to protect

“human, animal or plant life and health”


“to conserve exhaustible natural resources”.

Those are two exceptions tailor-made for this kind of tariff.

More practically, if the UK were to join the United States of America, our friends in the European Union and other countries to establish the principle of BCAs at COP26, that would be a game changer, because that would ensure their practical acceptance. Others worry that putting forward such an ambitious proposal at COP26 runs the risk of failing to achieve the consensus that would allow the PR men to claim a stunning success. It might, but the risk of failure is the price of ambition, so should we give up on our ambition? Of course not.

I have no doubt that my hon. Friend is right about the application of WTO rules, but what happens if a free trade agreement is already in place? Would that free trade agreement have to be renegotiated? Suppose we have a free trade agreement with the EU and we want to put a carbon tariff on German steel, which is very carbon intensive. Are we going to be tied in knots by what we might have already agreed? How does he think that would be resolved?

The example that my hon. Friend gives—that of Germany—would fall neatly into the European Union, which is consulting on this very issue, so in that case, it would be a coalition of the willing to allow us to go forward, I hope, with a form of equality between the European emissions trading scheme, or its successor, and the approach that we would take ourselves. However, I accept that that would be up to country-by-country negotiations.

Is there international support for this approach? Do we have a realistic prospect of bringing the world community together and with us at COP26? I say that there is, because President-elect Biden has already spoken about “carbon adjustment fees” against

“countries that are failing to meet their climate and environmental obligations.”

That is a clear indicator that the incoming Administration in America is taking this seriously. I know that there is many a slip between a statement of intent and action, but it is something that we can potentially get behind at COP26. The European Union, as has been mentioned, just this July launched a formal consultation on the implementation of a border carbon adjustment, and it is worth noting that for the President of the Commission—I think it was part of her manifesto when she was first appointed— this is one of the key objectives for her presidency.

I commend my hon. Friend on his absolutely fascinating speech. It is clearly good to try to get global co-operation on this as a coalition of the willing, as he put it, among as many countries and trading partners as possible. If we fail to do that, does he think that the UK should go on its own, or would that be too difficult and put us too much out on a limb in the global trading system?

I say that we go it alone. I think it is one of the great freedoms that we have from Brexit. We have taken the trouble to get our independence. What use is it if we are not prepared to use it—if we are too scared to use our independence to make a bold statement and say, “This is the right thing to do. We are going to do it. Follow us if you like.”?

I am delighted to hear the depth with which the hon. Member is exploring this subject. What he has been saying is fascinating. Does he agree, though, that if it is about the right thing to do, the first thing we must do is to stop the subsidies and tax concessions that currently go to carbon industries domestically, and that it only makes sense as part of a whole package if we do that?

The hon. Member recognises that we are on a journey in our decarbonisation of industry. I would be delighted if I managed to persuade the Minister to accept this one element of the policy without rewriting the entire economic agenda for the next period, but it is clearly true that, over time, we will be moving away from petrochemicals, and the economic case—the business case—for subsidising what will soon become stranded assets becomes less and less clear.

Our hosting of COP26 would be the perfect forum to crystallise these disparate movements that we have already identified around the world into a coherent whole. What better objective for the conference could there be? Politics is full of mis-steps and compromise. Very rarely do the stars align in favour of a truly inspiring act of political and economic leadership—one that can transform the future of our country and the world for the better. The stars are aligning for border carbon adjustments, if only the Government will believe in the Prime Minister’s vision of a post-Brexit Britain and be bold.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) gave a compelling and fascinating speech. He elucidated many of the technical difficulties associated with imposing unilaterally, as he was arguing, a carbon border tax. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) hit the nail on the head when he asked, “Should we do this unilaterally?” I am going to start by saying that, in my view and in the Government’s view, this is an important subject but it has to be treated as part of a multilateral effort. We are responsible for 1% of carbon emissions globally, and if we impose a tax unilaterally on carbon-emitting products coming into this country, we may well be disadvantaging our own consumers if others around the world are not placing such a tax. The Government feel that multilateral co-operation in this regard is by far the best way to prevent carbon leakage.

Another thing I would say to my hon. Friend is that by focusing on carbon emissions, he is really discussing the thorny issue of carbon accounting. Ultimately, the intellectual difficulty of accounting for carbon is the broader problem of whether the carbon is produced abroad or at home. In that respect, I would like to refer him to what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his announcement in this Chamber a little more than a month ago. I am proud that he announced that the UK would become the first G20 country to make Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures-aligned climate-related financial disclosures fully mandatory across the economy.

I am not saying that my hon. Friend said this, but I do not think it is right to say that we are somehow laggards on the issue of carbon accounting. In fact, I would say that we are taking a leadership role on this subject. He alluded to the fact that the EU is looking at how it can implement a carbon import regime with a tax on carbon-emitting products coming into the EU, and we are absolutely engaged with the EU in discussing that. We feel that that is part of the multilateral approach.

If my hon. Friend takes a broad view of this subject internationally, he will see that 2020 has seen far greater progress than any previous year. Only a couple of months ago the Chinese Government pledged to achieve a net zero carbon target in 2060, and that is incredibly significant. I remember when I was first appointed to this job, someone said to me that what we did in the United Kingdom would make no difference if China continued along its present path. I am pleased to say that China has changed its path and said very clearly that it has set a net zero target for 2060. The Japanese followed suit soon afterwards, adopting our target of 2050, as did the South Koreans. So the auspices for international co-operation on the measure that my hon. Friend has described are actually very good, and there is a chance that if we cannot reach an agreement at COP26 next November, we may well be advancing along the lines that he suggests in the not-too-distant future. I have to stress that multilateral co-operation on how we price carbon and how we account for carbon in the round is far more constructive than placing a unilateral tax in the way that he has described.

One thing I would say about the figures that my hon. Friend very ably quoted in regard to the benefit to the Treasury is that there would obviously be behavioural impacts, so it would be difficult for me to model the consumer demand for products that had been taxed in the way that he has described. I would be interested to have a conversation with him about the assumptions behind the analysis that he very ably referred to in his excellent speech.

My right hon. Friend has said something that I regard as significant. Yes, we are going to try to achieve a multilateral approach at COP26, but if we do not succeed, we will consider a more unilateral approach. I am bound to say at this particular juncture, when the term “level playing field” is so commonly spoken about in respect of a certain negotiation, that it would surely be a distortion of international competition for some countries to be doing their best to deal with climate change and for other countries to be exploiting those efforts. If that is not a distortion of genuine free trade, I do not know what is. I think that the unilateral approach is justified.

This is an interesting debate. My hon. Friend suggests that a unilateral approach, punishing other countries for not adopting the climate change agenda—that is effectively what we would be doing—might work. As I have had to say repeatedly, I think that a multilateral approach is the best way forward. There is an open debate about the effectiveness of a unilateral approach when every other country in the world would not be disadvantaging these products.

Does the Minister recognise that at the moment, £10.5 billion of public money goes from the Treasury as subsidy to fossil fuels in this country? That is more than any other country in the EU, where the average is about £6.5 billion. Therefore, if we are to go down the route suggested by the hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) and his colleagues on the Government Benches, it is important that the UK shows good faith and does not punish other countries for what it is doing worse itself. To punish those countries for the carbon encapsulated in their industries while subsidising our own fossil fuel industries more than all the rest would seem rather ridiculous.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. That is exactly what I was trying to say with regard to TCFD disclosures. We have to look at carbon accounting and carbon pricing in the round. It is a global market and we have to look at what we are doing on discouraging carbon-emitting behaviour in the wider context of international trade. That is a fair point.

So will the Minister speak with the Chancellor about how we can reduce the subsidies to fossil fuels in this country—domestically—so that some of the innovative ideas that the hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) has put forward this evening might be taken forward with credibility? [Interruption.]

Sorry—I was just respectfully pointing out to my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire that he cannot intervene on an intervention.

I am very happy to take up that point. Of course, I discuss with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor all the time how we can capture carbon accounting more effectively in order to pursue the goal that we all seek, which is a net zero world and certainly a net zero British economy.

No, I have to make some progress.

Ahead of COP26, obviously, as the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) mentioned, we have to look at carbon accounting in the round, and we have to look at how we reduce incentives for carbon-emitting activity here in the UK and in the context of the imported carbon that we bring in from other countries. All these issues have to be addressed in the round.

What I wanted to say, and have said very clearly, is that we are actual leaders in this subject. We are actually driving ahead mandatory TCFD financial disclosures. There are no other countries in the G20 that have done that. We passed the net zero amendment to the Climate Change Act 2008 last year. Again, even though other countries have made public statements supporting that policy, they have yet to enshrine it in their in their legal codes. We are showing leadership. We intend fully to continue showing leadership and providing that sort of steer at COP26 in Glasgow.

The Minister has repeatedly said that the best way to proceed is by multilateral agreement, and I absolutely agree. It is wonderful that we have COP26 coming up next year, and it is the perfect opportunity to show multilateral leadership. Will the Minister therefore commit to the House that we will make border carbon adjustments a core objective of COP26?

It is not in my power to make that commitment to the House. As my hon. Friend knows, I am not the COP26 president, and I suggest that he directs that question to my right hon. Friend the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary, who is the president of COP26. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that the issue is absolutely at the centre of the wider debate about climate change and of what I might call international energy diplomacy, and I am sure it will discussed very seriously at COP26 next year.

I just want to put something on the record. The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) quoted a £10 billion subsidy figure for fossil fuels. Will the Minister confirm that the Government do not accept that figure? It is based on things such as the fact that we charge only 5% VAT on domestic fuel instead of 20%. It is typical of the EU to regard a low tax to help poorer households afford their fuel bills as a subsidy. One of the reasons we are leaving the EU is that it puts out rubbish propaganda such as that. We do not subsidise fossil fuels, and I hope the Minister will make that clear.

My hon. Friend is right. It is pretty extraordinary to say that we are somehow the laggards on this subject. When a country such as Germany is phasing out its coal dependency only in 2038, it is a bit extraordinary for Opposition Members to make that claim. We are very much the leaders in this arena, and my hon. Friend was quite right to point that out.

I am not going to take any more interventions, I am afraid.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland has ably demonstrated, this is a fascinating subject, and it will continue to exercise many minds and much passion. In fact, no more serious subject could be debated here, and I commend him for bringing it to our attention, for debating it in a very open and, dare I say, friendly way, and for giving one of the best speeches I have heard from the Back Benches this Parliament in terms of the thoroughness with which he presented his material and the passion with which he stated his arguments.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.