The US Submission on Elements of the 2015 Agreement has recently appeared on the UNFCCC website and outlines, in some detail, the approach the US is now seeking with regards “contributions”. Adaptation and Finance are also covered, although not to the depth of the section on Mitigation.

The submission makes it very clear that the US expects robust contributions from Parties, with schedules, transparency, reporting and review. There is also a useful discussion on the legal nature of a contribution. None of this is surprising as the US delegation to the recent COPs and various inter-sessional meetings has made it very clear that real action must be seen from all parties, not just those in developed countries.

But the submission makes no reference to the role of carbon markets or carbon pricing. Only in two locations does it even refer to market mechanisms and this is only in the context of avoiding double counting. This is coming from the Party that gave the world the carbon market underpinning of the Kyoto Protocol, which in turn has given rise to the CDM, the EU ETS, the CPM (in Australia) and the NZ ETS to name but a few, so perhaps reflects the current difficulty Parties are having keeping carbon price thinking on the negotiating agenda. 

I would argue that without a price on carbon emissions, the CO2 emissions issue will be much more difficult to fully resolve. Further to this, while individual countries may pursue such an agenda locally, the emissions leakage from such systems could remain high until the carbon price permeates much of the global energy system. This then argues for an international agreement that encourages the implementation of carbon pricing at a national level. The Kyoto Protocol did this through the Assigned Amount Unit, which gave value to carbon emissions as a property right. While there is no such “Kyoto like” design under consideration for the post 2020 period, the agreement we are looking for should at least lay the foundations for such markets in the future. The question is, how??

In the post 2020 world, carbon pricing is going to have to start at the national level, rather than be cascaded from the top down. Many nations are pursuing such an agenda, including a number of emerging economies such as China, South Korea, South Africa and Kazakhstan. Linkage of these carbon price regimes is seen as the key to expansion, which in turn encourages others to follow similar policy pathways and join the linked club. The reason this is done is not simply to have carbon price homogeneity, but to allow the transfer of emission reduction obligations to other parties such that they can be delivered more cost effectively. This allows one of two things to happen; the same reductions but at lower cost or greater reductions for the expected cost. The latter should ideally be the goal and is apparently the aspiration the USA has, given it states that the agreement should be “designed to promote ambitious efforts by a broad range of Parties.” The carbon price is simply a proxy for this process to allow terms of trade to be agreed as a reduction obligation is transferred.

All of this implies that the post 2020 agreement at least needs a placeholder of some description; to allow the transfer of reductions to take place between parties yet still have them counted against the national contribution. As it stands today, it is looking unlikely that explicit reference to carbon pricing or carbon markets will make its way into the agreement, but perhaps it doesn’t need to at this stage. On the back of a transfer mechanism, ambition could increase and a pricing regime for transfers could potentially evolve. If that happens to look like a global carbon market in the end, then so be it.