Josephine V. Yam

The Accelerated Growth of Carbon Markets

"Right now, the carbon markets of the future are under construction in all corners of the world", enthused Rachel Kyte, Vice President of Sustainable Development at the World Bank, in a recent Huffington Post article.

According to Kyte, at least 35 countries, 18 sub-national jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada, and 7 Chinese cities and provinces will eventually be launching their own carbon markets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

For example, China has vocally expressed its resolute determination to use the "magic of the market" of emissions trading as a way of greening its robust economy. The Chinese government believes that the creation of its own national carbon emissions market will serve as a very efficient strategy to achieving a sustainable green economy.

The linking of carbon markets with one another is crucial to achieving cost efficiencies in reaching a global carbon price for carbon credits. To this end, the World Bank established the Partnership for Market Readiness (PMR) in 2011, which has brought together over 30 developed and developing countries to consolidate their efforts in creating market-based instruments for GHG emissions reduction, including the creation of emissions trading schemes. Indeed, this bottom-up approach may prove to be a more effective way to successfully combat climate change.

Time to Confront Climate Change

The New York Times editorial “Time to Confront Climate Change” recalls that during his first term, President Obama described climate change as one of humanity’s most pressing challenges. He pledged an all-out effort to pass a cap-and-trade bill that would limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Unfortunately, during that period, many political obstacles blocked Mr. Obama’s administration from successfully passing a cap-and-trade bill.

Since his re-election in November 2012, President Obama identified climate change as one of his top priorities in his second term. In his interview for TIME’s Person of the Year award, he cited the economy, immigration, climate change and energy at the top of his agenda for the next four years.

The article then raised a very important question: Will President Obama bring the powers of the presidency to bear on the climate change problem?

President Obama has strategic “weapons” within his reach to tackle climate change and reduce emissions while reasserting America’s global leadership, the article notes.

One weapon he has is to ensure that natural gas, which is hugely abundant in the U.S., is extracted without risk to drinking water or the atmosphere. Indeed, the U.S. has natural gas in abundance, a boon considering that it emits only half the GHG emissions as coal does. This can be undertaken by the Obama administration through national legislation to replace the inconsistent, patch-work requirements of various state regulations.

Another weapon President Obama has is to enact and implement policies both in well-known clean energy technologies (i.e. wind power and solar power) as well as in basic research, next-generation nuclear plants and promising technologies that could lead to a low-carbon economy.

Moreover, another weapon within President Obama’s arsenal is to call on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s authority under the Clean Air Act to limit emissions from stationary sources, mainly coal-fired power plants. The EPA has already proposed strict emission standards for new power plants that can only be built when they have installed carbon capture and sequestration technologies. The problem that the EPA will need to deal with is what to do with existing coal-fired power plants, which still generate about 40% of U.S. electricity power.

At the Copenhagen climate meeting back in 2009, President Obama committed that the U.S. would reduce its GHG emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. With the abundant supply and strong demand for cheap natural gas as well as the EPA’s newly established fuel standards and mercury rules, among others, the U.S. is now on its way to achieving a 10% GHG reduction by 2020.

Thus, it appears that reaching President Obama’s 17% goal is within the realm of the possible after all. That is, if he courageously uses the powers of his presidency to wield the strategic weapons he has to tackle climate change.

5 Steps for Business-friendly Climate Agenda

Eric Pooley provides five steps that President Obama should take to address climate change in his second term. In his Harvard Business Review article, “A Business-Friendly Climate Agenda for Obama's Second Term”, Pooley outlines how the president can fulfill his promise to ensure that America "isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet". He emphasizes that the following 5 steps can only be successful with the active support and participation of private industry.

1. Feed the conversation. President Obama can start by simply by talking about the issue and helping Americans see the relationship between emissions, climate change and extreme weather. This conversation is crucial as it engages the voices from private industry, including insurance companies, pension funds, banks and small business. To be politically viable, climate solutions must be economically sustainable.

2. Reduce climate accelerants. President Obama can take immediate steps to reduce potent greenhouse gases other than carbon, such as methane and fluorinated gases used in refrigerants and industrial applications. Although carbon is most ubiquitous, these substances are "climate accelerants", which means that they accelerate global warming the same way gasoline fuels a fire.

3. Start a clean energy race. President Obama can reduce subsidies for fossil fuels, continue tax credits for renewable energy while increasing R&D funding. Congress should pass national clean energy standards, which would require states to get more energy from renewables. Obama should also encourage private capital to invest in low-carbon energy by removing barriers to investments in efficiency and renewables.

4. Use the Clean Air Act. President Obama should use the Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, under authority confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA. This means vigorously defending the clean-air rules that his administration has already put in place, including the historic higher fuel economy standards for new cars and trucks and restrictions on the emission of mercury and other toxic air pollution for power plants. His administration should also set CO2 emission standards for new and existing power plants through flexible and economically efficient approaches.

5. Put a price on carbon. President Obama should heed the call of economists from across the political spectrum that believe that the most economically efficient way to cut carbon pollution is by imposing a price via a carbon tax or through cap and trade. Either would be a powerful incentive to produce cleaner power and could be accompanied by lower taxes on labor or capital, easing the impact on working families and business. As the U.S. moves toward a fiscal cliff, there is slew of discussions in Washington about raising revenue through a carbon fee. It could be in the form of a carbon tax starting at $20 per metric ton and rising at 6% a year that could raise $154 billion by 2021.

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.

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.

EU Inclusion of Airline Emissions triggers International Law Dispute

The brewing international controversy of airline emissions being included in the EU ETS highlights one of the risks of the EU unilaterally imposing a carbon market on its member countries while China, US and other major economies do not have their own carbon markets, as reported in the New York Times.

The Law

The European initiative, which was effective on January 1, 2012, involves folding aviation into the six-year-old emissions trading system, in which polluters can buy and sell a limited quantity of permits, each representing a ton of carbon dioxide. The law requires airlines to account for their emissions for the entirety of any flight that takes off from — or lands at — any airport in the EU bloc. While airlines landing or taking off in Europe are included in the EU ETS beginning January 1, 2012, they do not have to start paying anything until April 2013.

The goal of this European initiative is to speed up the adoption of greener technologies at a time when air traffic, which represents about 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, is growing much faster than gains in efficiency.

Consequences of the Law

Airlines will have to buy 15 percent of their emissions certificates at auction. Carbon emissions from planes will initially be capped at 97 percent of the 2004-2006 levels. The emissions rules apply from the moment an aircraft begins to taxi from the gate, either en route to or from a European airport, and they cover emissions for the flight from start to finish — not just the portion that occurs in European airspace.

Why the EU went ahead with the Law

Governments and airlines have been in negotiations for more than a decade over the creation of a global cap-and-trade system under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a U.N. agency that handles global aviation matters. The organization’s 190 member countries passed a resolution in 2010 committing the group to devising a market-based solution, though without a fixed timetable. Impatient with the pace of those talks, the European Commission moved ahead with its own plan, which was passed two years ago with the support of national governments and the European Parliament.

Airline Industry Raise Vehement Objections

Some 26 countries, including China, Russia and the United Countries, formally showed their dissatisfaction with the European system — a move that heralds a possible commencement of a formal dispute procedure at the ICAO. They have questioned whether this EU directive is invalid. Their arguments include the following:

1) Why the requirements apply to emissions from the entire flight, not just the portion that occurs within EU airspace?

2) In applying its environmental legislation to aviation activities in third countries' airspace and over the high seas, the E.U. has violated fundamental and well-established principles of customary international law.

3) The EU's actions infringe on the notion that each nation has sovereignty over its territory, a universally recognized principle of international law

4) By acting unilaterally, the European Union also breached international obligations that require such matters to be resolved by consensus under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a U.N. agency that handles global aviation matters.

China's Reaction

China announced that its carriers would be forbidden to pay any charges under the European emissions system without Beijing’s permission. It also threatened retaliation, such as impounding European aircraft, if the EU punishes Chinese airlines for not complying with its emissions trading scheme. In fact, this dispute halted China's purchase of Airbus planes worth up to $14 billion. However, during Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Beijing last August, China signed an agreement with Germany for 50 Airbus planes worth over $4 billion.

U.S. Reaction

The U.S. Senate recently passed a bill that would protect U.S. airlines from paying for their carbon emissions on European flights. Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill said that “Americans shouldn’t be forced to pay a European tax when flying in U.S. airspace.” The U.S. bill increases pressure on the ICAO to formulate a global alternative to the EU law.

EU Response to China and the other countries

The EU posits that the ETS is not a charge or a tax but a cap-and-trade system. Its defense includes the following claims:

1) The purpose of our legislation is to reduce emissions, not make money.

2) Including aviation in the ETS is "fully consistent with international law" because the EU is not seeking to extend its authority outside of its airspace.

3) However, given the complaints of China and other countries, the EU could suspend parts of a new law requiring airlines to account for their greenhouse gas emissions if countries were to make clear progress this year toward establishing a global emissions control system

The EU Commission said that the EU would only repeal or amend the law if there was an international deal to tackle emissions from planes, which account for less than 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

World's Largest Carbon Market: Linking Australian & EU Emissions Trading Systems

Last week, the Australian Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Greg Combet, and the European Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard announced that Australia and the European Union (EU) will be linking their emissions trading systems.

Commissioner Hedegaard said: "We now look forward to the first full international linking of emission trading systems. This would be a significant achievement for both Europe and Australia. It is further evidence of strong international cooperation on climate change and will build further momentum towards establishing a robust international carbon market."

Minister Combet said: "Linking the Australian and European Union systems reaffirms that carbon markets are the prime vehicle for tackling climate change and the most efficient means of achieving emissions reductions."

A link between emissions trading systems allows companies in one system to use units from another system for compliance purposes. The advantages of linking include:

  • reducing the cost of cutting carbon pollution because enterprises will have access to more and lower cost emissions abatement units;
  • increasing market liquidity, which in turn offers a more stable carbon price signal;
  • increasing business opportunities to trade because companies with excess units will have access to more buyers and companies that need more units can purchase them from a wider range of sellers; and
  • supporting global cooperation on climate change.

A full two-way link between the EU and Australian cap-and-trade systems will start by July 1, 2018. Under this arrangement, private industry will be able to use carbon units from the Australian emissions trading scheme or the EU Emissions Trading System for compliance under either system.

An interim link between the two systems will be established allowing Australian businesses to use EU allowances to help meet liabilities under the Australian emissions trading scheme from July 1, 2015 until the full link is operational in 2018.

According to the EU website, this linking arrangement “represents the first step towards linking the established carbon market in Europe with developing carbon markets in the Asia Pacific. Together, the linked Australian and European emissions trading systems will be the world’s largest carbon market and a major driver of the global transition to a low carbon economy.”

Carbon Finance: To Trade or Tax?

There are a lot of features of a Carbon Tax that make it an effective economic-incentive approach to address climate change:

  1. Carbon taxes lend predictability to energy prices. This allows for strategic decision-making involving energy to be made will full awareness of the carbon–appropriate price signals, whether it is design of new electricity generating plants to the purchase of the family car.
  2. Carbon taxes will provide quicker results. The taxes themselves can be designed and adopted quickly and fairly.
  3. Carbon taxes are transparent and are easier to understand than Cap & Trade. The government simply imposes a tax per ton of carbon emitted, which is easily translated into a tax per kWh of electricity or gallon of gasoline.
  4. Carbon taxes address all sectors and activities producing carbon emissions. They target carbon emissions in all sectors such as energy, industry and transportation.

Indeed, the three-letter word called “tax” can spell political suicide for some governments, especially in the midst of this global financial crisis. Thus, some governments may not be bold enough to espouse it as a strategic policy tool to fight climate change.

Written: 2011 November
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