While there was plenty of talk at COP 19 about financing, national ambition, increasing pre-2020 ambition and adaptation, another core subject that struggled for high-level attention (the other one being CCS) was the idea of carbon pricing, specifically delivered through carbon markets. This is one of those subjects that an observer of the process would expect to see appearing in almost every discussion, yet it didn’t make it out of the SBSTA working group meetings. This meant that the high level discussions towards the end of the COP (when the national delegations are typically bolstered by the presence of a Minister) didn’t get to hear about carbon pricing at all (or CCS).

There is no doubt that carbon pricing appears on many national agendas, with of course the EU leading that trend through the 2005 start of the EU ETS. Parts of the US and Canada, New Zealand, Kazakhstan (pilot phase) and a few others have already incorporated carbon pricing within parts of their energy systems and China, South Africa and others are in various stages of preparing for it. These are positive developments, but carbon pricing really only works at its most efficient when coverage is both widespread and coordinated, otherwise leakage (in various forms), arbitrage and rent-seeking can undermine local implementation. Further to this and as I have discussed in previous postings, if carbon pricing isn’t a core element of the eventual climate policy framework, then emissions may not go down at the necessary rate or if they do decline it will likely be at a much higher cost than would otherwise have been necessary.

Carbon pricing is also the potential lever for large scale financing of mitigation projects, as has been seen to some extent with the CDM. By far the largest flow of finance to projects in developing countries has come through the application of the CDM and subsequent sale of CERs on international markets, not through public financing of projects through funds, development aid and the like. While these latter approaches are also important, they will never be sufficiently large or aggressive enough to underpin the scale of global mitigation required. Well over a billion CERs have been created since the start of the CDM, which equates to some $10 billion in carbon financing and possibly $30-$70 billion in underlying project financing.  But even discussions on the CDM in Warsaw were lacklustre, with some CDM negotiators continuing to think and operate as if the year was 2006 and demand for CERs was on an rise. At the beginning of the Warsaw talks, there was some discussion amongst negotiators about having the Green Climate Fund (GCF) utilise the CDM as a results-based financing tool, and allowing the CDM to become a ‘net mitigation tool’ for non-Annex 1 countries to utilise as they prepare for tabling contributions next year and in 2015. In the end, no such language emerged from Warsaw, which raises the prospect of even this mechanism struggling to survive in the post 2015 world.

One could argue that carbon pricing is simply part of national implementation and therefore shouldn’t feature at the UNFCCC level, but as noted above, that is not an efficient approach. There is a potential role for the UNFCCC to create a framework which both encourages the use of carbon pricing and coordinates its implementation through linkage, leading eventually to the much desired “global carbon market”. Within the current negotiations, the only place a UNFCCC role might be created is through the New Market Mechanism (NMM) within the Framework for Various Approaches (FVA). Some thoughts on this can be found here (Carbon Pricing, the FVA and the NMM), where the FVA/NMM is proposed to include a linking framework for all countries to use.

 NMM and FVA

There is also a second argument that linkage can be achieved bilaterally, such as California and Quebec have negotiated and Australia had proposed with the EU (presumably now defunct given the repeal of carbon legislation now underway in Australia). But bilateral linkage runs its course very quickly before multilateral discussions are required. For example, if Quebec now reached out to another party to link to, California would have to be involved given the existing link, so a trilateral discussion would be needed. This would quickly get very complex and large potential linking partners such as the EU would have to shift to a multilateral approach of some description.

So what happened to carbon markets in Warsaw? The short answer is not much.

The FVA and NMM discussions ground to a standstill in the first week. Concerns about basic form and function of the FVA dogged the discussion, compounded by other concerns relating to whether these were pre or post 2020 mechanisms. In the end, the FVA and NMM discussions were postponed until the regular SBSTA meetings in June. The UNFCCC posting on the FVA and NMM in Warsaw shows nothing more than the input documents that were available prior to the COP, with no conclusions whatsoever.

On a positive note this delay at least offers more time to develop FVA and NMM thinking along the “carbon market” lines outlined above, rather than have a weak agreement that precludes such a possibility and leaves them languishing as information sharing bodies – an entirely possibly outcome from this process. But the lack of attention to carbon pricing and carbon markets in the context of a global deal that is meant to rapidly drive down global emissions is worrying. There remains of course the sterling efforts of the World Bank and their Partnership for Market Readiness, but initiatives such as these won’t be sufficient without some overarching policy action to create the markets in the first place.