Josephine V. Yam

By 2023, a Changed World in Energy

“When it comes to energy, the rule of the game is to expect the unexpected,” observed energy historian Daniel Yergin in the New York Times article, “By 2023, a Changed World in Energy”.

Yergin noted: “So much effort is going into research, development and innovation all across the energy spectrum, 10 years from now we may well see the next game changer.”

Writer Clifford Krauss recalls that, in 2003, American natural gas fields were thought to be depleting rapidly such that expensive terminals for natural gas importation, not exportation, were being built. U.S. oil production was likewise declining at rapid rates.

Now, ten years later, the U.S. is well on its way to become energy independent, thanks in no small part to new drilling technology that has made its oil and natural gas fields much more productive. In fact, in its latest World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that the U.S. will overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world's top oil producer by 2017. This will have massive geopolitical consequences, as the U.S. will no longer depend on undemocratic regimes like Venezuela or Nigeria for obtaining its oil supply.

So what will the energy world look like in 2023? It will be a different energy world where there will be widespread adoption of electric cars, solar panels by business and households and trains and trucks guzzling on natural gas. It will be a world where renewable energy sources will become dominant, accounting "for 32 percent of the overall growth in electricity generation through 2040.”

According to the IEA, the emerging market economies, like China, will still be reliant on fossil fuels through 2035. Yet, it reports that China’s new government has committed to investing more than $70 billion a year in clean energy projects, in recognition of the imperative sustainability path that it must undertake to quench its still growing energy appetite.

“Much of the future of energy will depend on government policy, of course,” noted Krauss. And indeed, a clean energy world will only be possible if governments around the globe arm themselves with the solid political will and foresight to bravely implement policies that support sustainable growth that is so crucial in this carbon-constrained decade.

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.

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.”

U.S. Adopts Stricter Fuel Efficiency Standards

The Obama administration recently issued final rules that would require automakers to nearly double the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks by 2025, reported The New York Times. This new fuel efficiency mandate requires an average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon (mgp) for the 2025 model year. Existing rules for the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) program require an average of about 29 mpg, with gradual increases to 35.5 mpg by 2016.

Obama announced that the stricter fuel standards represent “the single most important step” his administration has ever taken to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The benefits are numerous: reduction in oil consumption by 12 billion barrels; savings of $1.7 trillion in fuel costs; average savings of more than $8,000 a vehicle by 2025; reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2025 through the elimination of six billion tons over the course of the program; and creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs by increasing the demand for new technologies.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney criticized the new fuel efficiency standards as “extreme” as they “would limit the choices when consumers shop for a new car.” Remarked Romney’s camp: “The president tells voters that his regulations will save them thousands of dollars at the pump, but always forgets to mention that the savings will be wiped out by having to pay thousands of dollars more upfront for unproven technology that they may not even want.”

Nevertheless, in a New York Times’ Op-ed article entitled “Cleaner Cars, a Safer Planet”, it was noted that this fuel efficiency mandate is “an important step on America’s path to a lower-carbon and more-secure energy future…. They may also serve as proof that well-tailored government regulation can achieve positive results and that consensus among old enemies — in this case environmentalists and the car companies — is possible even at a time of partisan discord.”

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