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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 2/9/09

DISTANCE TARIFFS - On Fossil Fuel Trade Impacts

Message Kent Welton
     "If the environmental costs of increased transport were properly internalized much of world trade would be revealed as uneconomic, and we would return to a more  localized, less environmentally destructive, trading system." 
                                                                          Edward Goldsmith

     "Man has lost a capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth."
                                                                              Albert Einstein

     Given a GATT/NAFTA regime written by and for capital we are subjected to amoral, environmentally irresponsible, and uncompensated "free” trade across borders and oceans.
     Aside from massive trade imbalances due to a lack of balancing-incentivizing tariffs, the amount of "goods" being shipped over great distances today – all in fossil fuel conveyances - is expanding at a rapid rate   Incredibly,  90% of the world's merchandise now travels across oceans.   

     As a result of this massive fossil-fuel driven “free” trade, serious new pollution, environmental decay, and truly dangerous climate change costs are emerging - not to mention horrendous trade and currency imbalances and the decimation of First World manufacturing capability. 

     For this reason, when all external costs are internalized and properly accounted for, much of this so-called “free” trade (arising largely due to a lack of tariff freedom and compensating tariffs between disparate nations) not only rewards the greater slave and destroys First World standards and capabilities but it is also fast polluting our world and pushing us toward severe climate change and a truly global tragedy of the Commons.

     Today, we are literally watching our world collapse while, at the same time, doing little or nothing to prevent or ameliorate such a catastrophe. A major problem is that “our” current trade policies are both highly irresponsible and uneconomic in the truest sense, not to mention undemocratic and oligarchic in nature.

      In fact, the ruling elite GATT/WTO setup currently prohibits the rational purchase and local "Buy American" preference.   Thus, without revision, this may well prevent distance tariffs acting to minimize fossil-fuel driven trade. Clearly, if uniformly applied, however, this should not be the case, as it simply amounts to an easily container-assessed and administered carbon tax.  

      As things stand, with the transport of goods requiring fossil fuels, we are forced to equate a product which travels 50 miles to market with one which travels 10,000 miles. Currently, there are no offsets or incentivizing tariff adjustments for the increased fossil-fuel pollution and climate-change costs of one product versus another.

      As a result, what we have in fossil-fuel transported global trade is universal loss - big time.

      Until we transport goods without fossil-fuel impacts then some form of distance tariffs are surely necessary, as well as easily calculated and applied in our containerized world. The greater the distance from producer to market, the greater the fossil-fuel tariff.

     Without such truly economic measures in place we not only give the greater-slave-rewarding “free trade” regime un-due legitimacy but also allow it to crush our environment in the process.  A rational trade regime will surely include a polluter pays principle, serve to foster greater localization of production and consumption, and not reward and give comparative advantage to, the greater polluter while punishing the more environmentally safe, and locally produced, product.

      Not many realize today how highly polluting are the diesel driven, ocean-going freighters, with their serious impacts upon both air and water. In the air, one Boeing 747 alone needs 53,000 gallons of climate-destroying fuel to fill its tanks and carry its cargo of over-packaged, forest-destroying, goods around the earth. This oft-unmentioned reality is but another good reason to minimize and further tax jet travel and encourage video-conferencing.

      As things stand, we are locked into feeding a growing global oligarchy and oligopoly hastening the decline and destruction of the very world we inhabit. A sick and undemocratic “free trade” (we don’t elect our representative to the WTO) process is set to benefit mega-corporations securing a global oligopoly, destroy local production capacity, and give the increasingly dependent and choiceless "sovereign" consumer the benefit of "cheaper" goods – all while we collectively act to destroy the very earth we inhabit. 

      Xenophon, the ancient greek writer of the oldest text on economics must be rolling in his atmospheric carbon-covered grave.

      Until we are able to transport goods without fossil-fuel emissions and environmental costs then distance taxes/tariffs are both necessary and responsible. Indeed, we must implement distance tariffs to not only give local sources a small break, and not default production to one country or company, but make global shippers pay the real costs of their activity, and give consumer’s pause about the real price of their purchase.

     At the same time we can invest the fossil-fuel tariff proceeds in environmental remedies made so necessary in a fossil-fuel world.

     Given the declining state of our planet, to embrace and foster a fossil-fuel trade regime and continue without more rational, incentivizing, and democratizing offsets of any kind, is to proceed to generate increasingly lethal impacts in the long-distance transshipment and attendant over-packaging of goods. This is simply criminal. 

Kent Welton, 
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