Josephine V. Yam

New Sustainability Metric: Total Return on Resources

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG)'s recent report stated that, in order to succeed in this new world of sustainability, companies will need to treat "resource management" as essential to their business. To do this, companies must focus on their “total return on resources” in order to optimize their inputs and outputs to maximize profits.

For inputs, companies will need to monitor the payback from natural resources in order to minimize the consumption of scarce supplies. Thus, power companies, for example, put a lot of money in improving the efficiency of their generating plants to reduce how much coal or natural gas they need in order to produce each megawatt of electricity.

For outputs, companies will also need to manage the "putback", which is the effect of their actions on the future supply of natural resources and on the climate so as to limit damage to the larger ecosystem. In such cases, for example, power companies put a lot of money in scrubbers and other processes to reduce the harmful emissions they release into the air.

The BCG report cites many stellar examples of companies focusing on their “total return on resources”. One of them is the Florida Ice & Farm, a Costa Rica-based beverage company. Its highly visionary CEO, Ramón de Mendiola Sánchez proclaimed that 40 percent of the variable portion of executive pay would be dependent on the company’s performance on environmental and social measures. He established a framework of strict measurements and strong managerial focus on environmental metrics, such as solid waste, water use and carbon dioxide emissions. The company set very lofty goals of achieving zero net solid waste by 2011, becoming water neutral by 2012 and carbon neutral by 2017. Thus, it comes as so no surprise that one of its bottling plants has become the most efficient in the world in terms of water usage. At the same time, the company’s revenues and market share have continued to grow through a tough economy. Mendiola firmly believes that this commitment to sustainability is the only way to achieve continued growth and to sustain Florida’s position as one of the most influential and admired companies in Costa Rica.

Indeed, the BCG report notes that, as resource supplies fail to keep up with burgeoning demand, companies will start treating sustainability as a central part of management rather than thrust it to the amorphous office unit of corporate social responsibility. The world as a whole is on the verge of a new wave of innovation in resource management, the report observes. And, as with all innovation, this will create opportunities for companies to teach others how to thrive in a carbon-constrained, resource-constrained world.

Norway Sets One of World’s Highest Carbon Tax Rates

The International Herald Tribune recently reported that Norway is set to almost double its CO2 tax rate for offshore oil and gas production beginning in January 2013. Indeed, the Norwegian government is setting one of the highest carbon tax rates in the world by increasing the CO2 tax rate from 210 Norwegian Krone (about €28) to 410 Krone (about €55) per ton of CO2. A substantial part of the newly generated tax revenue will go into the government’s investments in clean energy, the environment and public transportation.

Many have lauded Norway’s sharp increase in carbon taxes for energy producers as exemplary. “The higher the tax, the more aggressive a signal the government is going to send about the need to lower carbon emissions,” said Janet Milne, a director of the Vermont Law School’s Environmental Tax Policy Institute. “You have to get fairly high carbon tax rates in order to get a significant long-term change in behavior,” she said.

“The EU prefers a system that taxes more of what we burn and less of what we earn. If we want to consume less energy, we need a smarter way of taxing,” said Isaac Valero-Ladron, the EU Spokesman for Climate Action.

According to the Australian Climate Commission, by 2013, 33 countries and 18 states and provinces (referred to as "sub-national jurisdictions") will have some sort of levy associated with the emission of CO2.

U.S. Imposes Tariffs on Chinese Solar Companies

The New York Times reported that the U.S. Commerce Department has determined that Chinese solar manufacturing companies were engaged in the unfair trade practice of "dumping". That is, they were benefiting from unfair government subsidies from the Chinese government and thus, were selling their products in the U.S. below the cost of production. In its determination, the Commerce Department imposed tariffs ranging from 24 - 36 percent on most solar panels imported by the U.S. from China. The tariffs will become effective if and when the International Trade Commission (ITC) decides that the Chinese solar companies have engaged in practices that have actually harmed or threatened to harm the American industry. The ITC decision is expected in November.

A group of U.S. solar manufacturers commenced this trade dispute in 2011, alleging that that Chinese companies were "competing unfairly in the American market". Chinese solar companies have cornered about 66% of the global sales for solar panels. Many solar panel manufacturers in the U.S. and in Europe have closed shop since then. In a similar trade dispute, the European Union recently commenced the world's largest anti-dumping case, involving the importation of Chinese solar panel amounting to $26.5 billion in 2011.

Designing Carbon Pricing: Questions that Policymakers Should Address

In its 2012 publication entitled "Fiscal Policy to Mitigate Climate Change: A Guide for Policymakers", the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stated that revenue-raising carbon pricing is the instrument that effectively addresses climate change. It noted that carbon pricing can either be in the form of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems with allowance auctions. What is crucial is that it is well-designed in terms of comprehensively covering emissions.

Thus, in designing carbon pricing legislation, the IMF suggested that policymakers give due consideration to the following questions:
  • How strong is the case for carbon pricing instruments over regulatory approaches (e.g., standards for energy efficiency or mandates for renewables)? How do carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems compare? What might be some promising alternatives if “ideal” pricing instruments are not viable initially?
  • How is a carbon pricing system best designed in terms of covering emissions sources, using revenues, overcoming implementation obstacles (e.g., by dealing with competitiveness and distributional concerns), and possibly combining them with other instruments (e.g., technology policies)? How might pricing policies be coordinated across different countries?
  • How should policymakers think about the appropriate level of emissions pricing?
  • How important is inclusion of the forest sector in carbon pricing schemes? How feasible is this in practice?
  • What should be the priorities for developing economies in terms of fiscal reforms to reduce emissions?
  • From the perspective of raising funds from developed economies to fund climate projects in developing economies, what are the most promising fiscal instruments? How should they be designed?
  • What lessons can be drawn from experience with emissions pricing programs, like the European Emissions Trading System (ETS) or the various carbon tax programs to date?

The IMF argued that the choice between carbon taxes and emissions trading systems is generally less crucial than implementing one of them and getting the design details right. What is important is that carbon pricing must comprehensively cover emissions and avoid wasting its revenue potential by granting free allowance allocations in cap-and-trade systems or allocating revenues for unimportant policy outcomes.