Document Type


Publication Date



Discussions regarding policies to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have been ongoing for decades, and GHG policies of various types have been implemented for years in many countries. In practice, countries that adopt GHG policies utilize a portfolio that typically includes a mix of standards, subsidies, mandates and price-based policies, each directed at particular economic sectors. In view of obvious inefficiencies and lack of synergies resulting from the portfolio approach, economists and many others have convincingly argued that setting a price on carbon—and other GHG emissions—using an economy-wide, upstream GHG tax would be the most effective and efficient policy to address GHG emissions. Its effectiveness stems from being able to cover all emissions from production and use of fossil fuels by applying the tax on producers of coal, oil, and gas resources at the mine mouth and wellhead before they are combusted, rather than dealing with actual emissions from millions of individual sources and actors throughout the economy. Its efficiency stems from allowing markets, rather than the political process, to identify and implement the most cost-effective steps to reduce emissions through decisions that affect current operations and purchases, and through decisions now about investment, research and development to invent and deploy more effective solutions to reduce future GHG emissions.

Myriad issues must be addressed to design and approve legislation to implement an upstream, economy-wide GHG tax. This report does not address that galaxy of challenges and opportunities. Rather, assuming that an upstream GHG tax could be implemented, the report addresses the challenge of border adjustments for exports and imports in the context of a domestic upstream GHG tax, as described below.

The domestic GHG tax could cause energy-intensive industries to shift production to countries without comparable pricing, resulting in “leakage” of GHG emissions that the domestic tax aims to prevent. By shifting production from the United States, the tax would also disadvantage domestic manufacturers, their employees, and the communities where they operate. Hence, the call by many to introduce border adjustments: through the imposition of equivalent GHG pricing on imported products from energy-intensive, trade-exposed (EITE) industries, and by providing rebates from the impact of the upstream tax on the cost of products exported by domestic producers. However, doing this has raised concerns about consistency with rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Here we propose a Framework for a US climate policy with border adjustments that are compatible with US obligations under WTO agreements. It is based on an upstream tax on GHG emissions with rebates for exports and charges on imports for products from EITE industries. A companion Compendium (forthcoming) provides additional details on implementing border adjustments with specific recommendations for 35 EITE industries. Proposed border measures are designed in a non-discriminatory fashion, with the intent and effect of reducing global GHG emissions. Therefore, the border adjustments proposed as part of the Framework will not give rise to any valid claims of WTO violations. Even if such claims should be raised, a strong defense could be made under the exceptions to the WTO rules.

Publication Citation

Jennifer Hillman, Brian Flannery, Jan W. Mares & Matthew Porterfield, Framework Proposal for a US Upstream Greenhouse Gas Tax with WTO-Compliant Border Adjustments (Resources for the Future, March 2018)