Increasingly, new designs for American high-rise buildings include high-tech details such as energy-efficient windows and long-lasting fluorescent bulbs that are meant to reduce their energy needs.
But no matter how "green" high-rise buildings are, they are still made with steel — hundreds of tons of it. And factories that produce steel emit a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide.
China, in particular, exports a lot of steel and can make it more cheaply than the United States can. But China makes it less efficiently: Producing a ton of Chinese steel causes a lot more carbon-dioxide pollution than a ton of American steel.
Many expect the United States to pass a law forcing U.S. manufacturers to pay some kind of tax or fee for every ton of carbon dioxide they emit. The idea is to create incentives for manufacturers to keep carbon-dioxide emissions low.
That fee will make steel and pretty much everything else more expensive — but only if it's made in the United States. If China doesn't have its own carbon fee, its cost advantage will be even greater.
"If we design our policies poorly, we could certainly increase imports from countries that don't have pollution controls," says Dale Bryk, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The net effect will be no benefit to the environment, and we're hurting our economy."
The fear is that America's buildings will be made with cheap Chinese steel that was made in factories that keep belching more and more carbon dioxide.
Environmentalists say there's a solution: a carbon tariff that would make China and other developing countries pay for their carbon emissions by adding a carbon charge to every import that enters the United States.
And the charge won't just be for building materials, like steel. It will be for everything.
At American Home Hardware, owner Felix Atlasman says 80 percent of his hammers come from China. He grabs some hammers off the shelf and drops them on a table.
"So, we're looking at four hammers now," Atlasman says. "China hammers range from $9.99 to $14.99. Americans start from $24.99 and up."
What if U.S. manufacturers pay some sort of carbon fee, and Chinese hammer makers don't? The United States will have to put a carbon price onto Chinese imports at the border.
"How can we charge the Chinese government for emissions that is happening in China, not in the U.S.?" Atlasman asks, adding, "I don't think it's going to happen. It's going to be hard to enforce that kind of thing."
The store owner is right. Calculating the carbon tariff on every Chinese good shipped to the United States would be difficult enough. Getting China, or any other country, to agree that the numbers are fair might just be impossible.
It's easy to think that no matter how much the United States reduces its own carbon emissions, it won't do any good; China will keep emitting its carbon dioxide, and global warming will continue to worsen.
"People are using the idea that we're going to do something and China's not going to it, therefore we shouldn't do it," Bryk says. "And that is not a legitimate reason for not doing anything."
Bryk says the problems can be sorted out. She says a carbon tariff or a fee on every Chinese import would encourage Chinese manufacturers to lower their carbon emissions.
But all that is off in the future. Let's say that in a few years Congress passes a law charging U.S. manufacturers a carbon tax, and it also comes up with a workable carbon tariff for Chinese goods coming to the United States. Congress can influence China's exports, but there is just not that much it can do to force China to make its power plants and domestic manufacturers any cleaner.
It'll be up to China to decide what to do about its greenhouse-gas emissions.