Archive for the ‘Carbon tax’ Category

Whether it is via the auction of allowances or the taxation of carbon emissions, climate policy is increasingly being seen as a source of revenue into the national treasury. For example, the Australian carbon pricing mechanism will raise several billion dollars per annum in its fixed price period (currently $23 per tonne CO2) and EU member state revenues from the ETS have risen as power generators in particular now face full auctioning of allowances, rather than the mainly free allocation that has existed since the system started in 2005.

The issue that the collection of revenue raises is what to do with it. Government already has a long established process for this. Money flows into the national treasury, with spending set through the Budget process that occurs on an annual basis. The principal link between revenue collection and spending is the political agreement on the size of the deficit or surplus, otherwise the two are largely independent. But carbon revenue challenges this model. For example, although the EU ETS Phase III Directive doesn’t (nor can it) dictate how auction revenue should be spent by Member States, it does suggest that it is used as follows:

Member States shall determine the use of revenues generated from the auctioning of allowances. At least 50 % of the revenues generated from the auctioning of allowances referred to in paragraph 2, including all revenues from the auctioning referred to in paragraph 2, points (b) and (c), or the equivalent in financial value of these revenues, should be used for one or more of the following:

    1.  to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including by contributing to the Global Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Fund and to the Adaptation Fund as made operational by the Poznan Conference on Climate Change (COP 14 and COP/MOP 4), to adapt to the impacts of climate change and to fund research and development as well as demonstration projects for reducing emissions and for adaptation to climate change, including participation in initiatives within the framework of the European Strategic Energy Technology Plan and the European Technology Platforms;
    2. to develop renewable energies to meet the commitment of the Community to using 20 % renewable energies by 2020, as well as to develop other technologies contributing to the transition to a safe and sustainable low-carbon economy and to help meet the commitment of the Community to increase energy efficiency by 20 % by 2020;
    3. measures to avoid deforestation and increase afforestation and reforestation in developing countries that have ratified the international agreement on climate change, to transfer technologies and to facilitate adaptation to the adverse effects of climate change in these countries;
    4. forestry sequestration in the Community;
    5. the environmentally safe capture and geological storage of CO2, in particular from solid fossil fuel power stations and a range of industrial sectors and subsectors, including in third countries;
    6.  to encourage a shift to low-emission and public forms of transport;
    7. to finance research and development in energy efficiency and clean technologies in the sectors covered by this Directive;
    8. measures intended to increase energy efficiency and insulation or to provide financial support in order to address social aspects in lower and middle income households;
    9. to cover administrative expenses of the management of the Community scheme.

A new report out recently from the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) provides a detailed look at the current revenue recycling practices around the world. These include areas such as the following;

  1. Compensating trade exposed industries
  2. Support for lower income people to offset the carbon price.
  3. Support for Research and Development on low carbon technologies.
  4. Investing in low carbon / low emission projects and energy efficiency schemes.
  5. Adaptation to climate change.

ICMM Report

ICMM have built the report around a core principle which they extol, namely “apply climate change related revenues to manage a transition to a low carbon future”. The report is excellent and well worth reading, but it does raise a very fundamental issue around the direct hypothecation of carbon revenue. This is isn’t just a governance issue though.

Australia serves as an interesting recent example. The decision to link the Australian ETS with the EU ETS followed by the precipitous drop in EU carbon prices has caused Australian government carbon revenue projections to be adjusted (down) accordingly. Recent headlines in Australia suggest that those relying on government support for various energy initiatives are now concerned about the certainty of that support and the overall level of it going forward. This concern stems from the fact that carbon revenue has been earmarked against certain objectives, such as in the categories listed above.

The alternative approach is to largely delink the collection of revenue and its use, which is the standard practice for most government expenditure. After all, why should we imagine that the collection of carbon revenue and the needs of the economy to make the transition to a much lower emission state should follow the same path. In the very early years, expenditure on R&D and demonstration projects (e.g. CCS, solar thermal etc.) may require funding far in excess of the available carbon revenue, which is often low at this stage as governments introduce a new tax at a modest level or give the bulk of the ETS allowances away for free. Further, at this time the need for guaranteed support for those first tentative investments is critical for long term deployment pathways.

Some years down the road carbon revenue may be very large and probably in excess of the transitional needs, which then argues for the bulk of the money to flow to general revenue. This will lead indirectly to reductions in other taxes, but the linkage would be unspecified. In this case, forcing the use of a large revenue stream on specific objectives may become a market distortion in itself. It is the job of the underlying mechanism (e.g. carbon tax, cap-and-trade, energy pricing) to drive deployment of a new set of energy technologies, not government against the need to spend earmarked revenue.

This is an issue that will likely run and run, assuming carbon prices ever recover to some meaningful level. The ICMM report is a useful contribution to the discussion and certainly gives an excellent overview of current practices. However, it does enter the discussion with the somewhat myopic view of ongoing hypothecation.

In a year which saw extreme weather rise up the political agenda and the consequences of a changing climate starting to sink into our collective psyche, action to actually address the issue of rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere remained limited.

With regards issue recognition and despite arguments about attribution, the Bloomberg Businessweek headline after Hurricane Sandy was a telling moment. But events such as this seem to have a short half life, so it remains to be seen how lasting this will be.

 The principal policy instrument to trigger action, a price on CO2 emissions, did gain political traction and coverage, but its impact remained mute. Several jurisdictions introduced carbon pricing and others continued developing approaches and/or starting up schemes already in the pipeline. Notably, despite industry resistance, Japan introduced a modest carbon tax (although there has been a change in government since then so watch this space) and Kazakhstan leapt ahead of the pack by introducing an emissions trading system for startup this week. The Chinese trial systems began to take shape and there is now serious discussion about national implementation in the 2016 5-year plan. As of January 1st the California ETS is up and running, as is the Quebec system. The Australian carbon price mechanism started in 2012 and importantly the Australian Government passed legislation to link their system with the EU ETS. But fierce opposition forced the EU to take a step back with regards its plans to cover international aviation under the EU ETS.

The EU did however take one major step forward during 2012, in its recognition that a carbon market created as a result of an ETS may need some government intervention from time to time to keep it on track and relevant. Although the issue is far from settled, there is at least a proposal on the table aimed at supporting the weak market in the EU. The move also establishes an important precedent for the future, not just in the EU but probably in the minds of policy makers globally.

With global carbon prices remaining low, the one critical technology for actually rescuing the emissions problem, carbon capture and storage (CCS), struggled badly. Shell did announce an important project in its oil sands in Alberta, but other than this little else happened. At the end of the year the EU managed to deliver a damaging blow to the technology by not coming up with a single project to support with its NER300 CCS funding mechanism, despite having nearly €2 billion in hand to spend. Instead, the money went to some twenty or so small renewable energy projects. It’s hard to overstate the importance of CCS, yet it seems increasingly distant in terms of commercialization and deployment.

From a climate perspective, the year concluded in Doha with two weeks of talks that did a lot to tidy up the UNFCCC process, but hardly pushed the agenda forward at all. If the “holy grail” of a global deal really is to be agreed by 2015, then something remarkable needs to happen during 2013.

Happy New Year!

As Australia struggled through the ill fated CPRS legislation and finally landed with its carbon pricing mechanism, I often thought that it would be much simpler if they just joined the EU ETS. Governments don’t tend to do simple practical things like that, perhaps it makes them feel they are giving away some portion of national sovereignty or that they aren’t doing the job they were elected for (i.e. “we must invent it here” syndrome). But despite all this and having gone the very long way around to get there, Australia has, in effect now joined the EU ETS (or perhaps the ETS has joined the Australian trading system).

Last week the Australian Government and the European Commission announced that their respective emission trading systems would link up progressively over Phase III of the EU system, but for Australian entities from the start of full carbon allowance trading in 2015. This is a bold move by both parties and quite possibly one that will make others with nascent trading systems sit up and think about where they want to go. For Australia, provided the changes can be implemented by a parliament that isn’t exactly friendly towards carbon pricing (but a wafer thin majority currently is), the move cements the system into place even further, in that undoing it would likely cause some embarrassment on the international stage. For the EU, it puts the ETS back in the frame and maybe introduces some additional demand at a time of allowance oversupply, depressed prices and a consequent lack of confidence in the system. Let’s hope this move helps both sides to deliver confidence and stability in their respective systems.

A full two-way link between the two cap and trade systems will start no later than 1 July 2018. Under this arrangement businesses will be able to use carbon units from the Australian emissions trading scheme or the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) for compliance under either system. To facilitate linking, the Australian government will make two changes to the design of the Australian carbon price:

  • The price floor will not be implemented;
  • A new sub-limit will apply to the use of eligible Kyoto units. While liable entities in Australia will still be able to meet up to 50% of their liabilities through purchasing eligible international units, only 12.5% of their liabilities will be able to be met by Kyoto units.

In recognition of these changes and while formal negotiations proceed towards a full two-way link, an interim link will be established enabling Australian businesses to use EU allowances to help meet liabilities under the Australian emissions trading scheme from 1 July 2015 until the full link is established.

Various Australian, EU and other websites cover all the details, so I won’t repeat them here. Rather, let me spend some time on a key issue that this move raises, namely the future design of any international framework via the UNFCCC (or other process). Both Australia and the EU have stressed that this is a bilateral linkage, to the extent that the allowance transactions will not be processed through the International Transaction Log (ITL), but CER transactions will be. However, there will still be a Kyoto AAU balancing at various times to ensure compliance in that system (although there remains considerable uncertainty with regards the issuance of Kyoto Second Period AAUs as there has been no firm agreement on the full nature of that period).

Despite this apparent distancing from the Kyoto based ITL, it must still be the case that the overarching Kyoto framework has helped this linkage – I might even go a step further here and say “allowed this linkage to happen”. Thanks to the UNFCCC architecture, these two systems grew up with enough harmony to make a linkage possible.  They “count” the same way, “track” the same way and “comply” the same way.  Both the systems have common offset arrangements through CERs under the Kyoto Clean Development Mechanism and the units created under the Australian Carbon Farming Initiative are also Kyoto compliant. This means we have the makings of a linked system with global reach.

This could be the primary goal of a new international framework, i.e. to provide sufficient tools, rules and mechanisms which countries can use in developing their carbon trading systems, thus facilitating linkage at a convenient time for those interested in doing so. Such a linkage framework could deliver the global market that we need, as shown in my illustration below (which by the way has been around for about 5-6 years now, so for me it is great to see that one of my linkage lines has finally been filled in!!).

The opportunity to devise such a framework now exists under the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, which aims to see a new international agreement in place by 2015, for commencement not later than 2020. The agreement between Australia and the EU should be seen as a catalyst for the thinking behind what is to come.

Finally, as something of an aside, one of the major complaints by Australian companies has been that the current $23 fixed price and the future market floor price put the Australian price of carbon “out of line with the international price”. I challenged this notion in a recent post, but irrespective those who called for such alignment have pretty much got what they wanted, although obviously not in the very short term. There may be eventual irony in this, should the EU system go through something of a recovery in its fortunes. While every indicator today points to a continued depressed price through to Phase IV, stranger things have happened in commodity markets.

P.S. I still think that the simplest approach for Canada, which has been putting off economy wide carbon pricing legislation for years, would be to join the EU ETS.

Next week the carbon pricing mechanism gets going in Australia, starting at a fixed price of AU$23 per tonne of CO2 in the first year, but later on shifting to a full cap-and-trade (probably around 2015). Early on the system will behave more like a carbon tax, in that the government will make available as many allowances as are required at the fixed price, but the infrastructure for the market based system will begin to appear, i.e. allowances, registries, compliance by surrender of allowances etc. A full description of how the Australian Carbon Unit works (the allowance) can be found here.

Apart from the side issue (although not so for some) as to whether Australia should be acting to reduce emissions, the debate has now shifted to whether or not the selected price of $23 is the right one. Many argue that as the “prevailing global price” of carbon is much lower, then Australia is out of step and therefore undermining its own competitiveness. The call seems to be for a price closer to $10, rather than $23.

The problem with this argument is that there is no prevailing global carbon price. Rather there are pockets of carbon pricing in many different jurisdictions. The largest of course is the EU, where the price is currently €8, low by historical standards. But this is a market responsive mechanism and has traded as high as €30 back in 2008 to €6 very recently. In Australian dollar terms, the high coincided with an exchange rate of $2 per €, so the price briefly touched AU$60. The average cost of compliance for Phase II of the ETS (i.e. 2008-2012), assuming purchasing throughout, has been very close to €17. The average exchange rate over the same period has been about 1.5 $/€, so that cost in Australian dollar terms is $25.50. As little as a year ago the ETS price was €15 at an exchange rate of 1.35, or just over AU$20, but the move down started shortly after that. There is something of an upward trend underway at the moment, perhaps in response to moves by the European Commission to support the market through backloading or a set aside of allowances. A look at the forward prices for EU allowances shows a 2020 contract at about €11-12 per tonne of CO2.

Other jurisdictions show variability as well, but in a different way. Canada does not have a Federal carbon pricing scheme, but provinces are beginning to act. Resource heavy Alberta has had a baseline and credit system up and running for a few years now which imposes a carbon price of CAN$15 per tonne on industrial emitters. British Columbia has had a carbon tax in place for some time, which is currently at CAN$25 per tonne, but rising this year to $30. This is about the same in Australian dollars.

The USA currently has two carbon pricing systems, the cap-and-trade system due to start in California in 2013 and the existing RGGI system in the North East States. California allowances currently trade at around US$16-17 (so about the same in Australian Dollars), but the RGGI price has always been relatively low, trading between $2-$4 since 2008. What is not apparent in the USA is the underlying implied CO2 price that will result from the regulatory approach through the Clean Air Act.

A variety of other carbon prices also exist around the world. The UK is introducing a domestic carbon price floor in the electricity sector, initially at £15.70 per tonne of CO2, or about AU$23.55 (at an exchange rate of 1.5 AU$/£). Norway has had a carbon tax in operation since 1991, with the price varying by sector. The average price is about AU$22 per tonne of CO2. In Sweden it is even higher, with the price around $AU100 per tonne of CO2. Switzerland has had a carbon tax in operation from 2008. The current price is up to CHF 36 per tonne, or about AU$37 per tonne.

Finally, there is the one price that could be argued to be global, which is the price of CERs in the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism. This is currently very low (€4) due to lack of demand from its one main market, the EU ETS.

The price being imposed in Australia is the decision of the government and has been reached on the basis of some objective that it wants to meet. Whether or not this is “right” in terms of emission reductions remains to be seen, but the argument that Australia is “out of line” with the rest of the world is questionable at best. The rest of the world is all over the place, with carbon prices ranging from just a few dollars to over one hundred Australian dollars. On that basis, the Australian price is probably about “right” in terms of starting the system, giving it some grit and getting everybody going. Full cap-and-trade isn’t far off with allowance auctions due to begin as early as 2014, after which a floating price will prevail.

Is the first offer the best?

Energy policy development over the last decade has shown one thing for certain, governments the world over are persistent in their desire to alter the energy mix and/or at least begin to manage emissions. Whether this is purely for environmental reasons or for concerns about energy security or perhaps for long term fiscal security almost doesn’t seem to matter, energy policy development and emissions management continues to be a high priority. This then opens up the question as to how business should best respond to this trend and what role it should play?

Recent developments in Australia present a useful case study. When the CPRS (Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme – a national cap-and-trade system) was proposed in 2008, an unintended coalition of certain business interests, the Federal Opposition and Green Party opponents eventually managed to see the bill fail. Many businesses actually supported the bill at the time, but seemingly the planets were not suitably aligned for passage. Had things been different, Australia would now have been in the late implementation phase of a relatively benign approach to managing emissions with a carbon price very likely around AU$10 per tonne, trading on the back of the global price for a Certified Emission Reduction (the UNFCCC offset mechanism) and its link to the EU ETS. Instead, events have resulted in a very different outcome. A fixed carbon price of $23 per tonne will be implemented from July, albeit transitioning to a market related price in a few years time. Recent media reports tell of a heated national debate now underway, with many arguing that the price is out of line with the “prevailing global price” and therefore leaving Australia competitively exposed. Not surprisingly, those that first opposed the CPRS and those concerned about the current price are in many cases, one in the same. The first offer in the form of the CPRS was arguably the better deal, yet it was turned down.

At least two offers have been made in the USA. In 2001 the Bush Administration offered a science and technology based approach which has delivered some results, but given a general lack of enthusiasm for implementation by the NGO community in particular with some business groups as unintended allies, the initiative failed in key areas such as the development of carbon capture and storage. Had real progress been made, rollout of the technology might have been underway today. Eight years later the second offer came from the Obama Administration in the form of a national cap-and-trade approach in combination with technology incentives, but this was also declined. Both of these were also relatively benign, the first because it represented an early start and would had been largely government funded and the second because the overall structure of the deal offered significant competitive protection for key industries and included both a long lead time for implementation and a soft start. The Clean Air Act offer now on the table appears to be the least palatable of all these and could well prove to be less effective in terms of actually reducing emissions. Given that it will require specific actions of large emitters, the implied carbon price for some facilities may be very high. In addition, the approach will address individual sources but may not result in a real reduction of national emissions because no overall cap will be in place.

Canada has also followed a fairly tortuous path in recent years. No substantive national programme to manage emissions has emerged, yet various forms of market based policy have been tested and rejected. Although carbon pricing mechanisms now exist in some provinces, a national standards based regulatory approach may well emerge, keeping pace with the Clean Air Act developments now underway in the USA. This is bound to be more complex and almost certainly more costly for business than the cap-and-trade approach that was first proposed back in about 2003. In 2005 a North American cap-and-trade approach was even studied by a combined EPA / Environment Canada Task Force.

Canada United States ccap and trade.jpg

 The increasing number of standards based or fixed price approaches that are now “on offer”, bring into question the wisdom of defeating “cap-and-trade”. The latter offers compliance flexibility through offset mechanisms, banking and limited borrowing, competition protection through free allocation in the early phases of implementation and even technology incentives through constructions such as the NER300 in the EU-ETS. By contrast, a standard has limited flexibility, no price transparency and potentially onerous penalties. This would appear to represent something of an “own goal”.

The EU faces a related issue today. Despite some initial grumbling, businesses in Europe actually accepted the first offer of the EU ETS (cap and trade). But its effectiveness has slowly eroded over time. This is partly due to the recession but there is also a policy design cause arising from the superimposition of multiple layers of policy, such as specific renewable energy targets, nuclear build rates, efficiency mandates and more. These policies are well meaning but often misaligned. As the ETS has weakened, this process has accelerated therefore compounding the problem. The business community is split over what to do about this with various proposals involving the set aside of allowances favoured by some, but others arguing that the system is naturally responding to events and should be left to find its own way. The problem with the latter position is that it could result in an ETS that becomes politically and economically irrelevant, leaving a standards based approach as the way forward in Europe as well. Another “own goal” in the making!

Two steps forward, one back

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2011 turned out to be a busy year for the development of carbon pricing. Long the cornerstone of EU climate policy, the approach continues to find favour with governments focused on the issue of managing emissions, rather than those trying to manage the shape of the entire energy mix. Since the EU system was introduced in 2005, carbon pricing has appeared in Alberta and British Columbia in Canada, in the North Eastern US states and remains under consideration in South Korea. Several other governments have raised the possibility of a carbon pricing system of some sort.

At the outset of the year there appeared to be little prospect for much movement forward, with some worrying signs that a retreat was possible. Proposition 23 may have been defeated in California, but other legal challenges had surfaced and the new Australian government was not expected to raise an issue that had only a few months earlier led to the fall of the Prime Minister.

But by year end Australia had a carbon price mechanism in place, South Africa had announced its intention to implement a carbon tax, China was apparently moving forward with a variety of pricing mechanisms and California was finalizing the details of its cap-and-trade system. In addition the inclusion of aviation in the EU-ETS had withstood numerous legal challenges and looked likely to go ahead in 2012.

While this is a positive set of developments, it can’t counter the fact that there was a major step backward during the year as well. The price weakness in the EU-ETS at the end of the year and the related difficulties facing the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) are worrying developments. Although COP 17 in Durban saw a lifeline of sorts thrown to the Kyoto Protocol (and therefore the CDM) and a key committee of the European Parliament voted in favour of a mechanism to bolster the ETS price, both these mechanisms remain in the balance.

2011 also saw a number of US States pull out of the Western Climate Initiative and New Jersey pull out of RGGI.

2012 could well be a pivotal year for a market-based approach to managing emissions.But with the prospect of new negotiations for an international agreement, the possibility of giving new life to carbon pricing is also with us.


A carbon price for Australia – finally!

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Depending on your take on events the toll has been as high as two Prime Ministers and one Leader of the Opposition, but Australia now has a carbon pricing mechanism operating in the economy (I say “now” in that even though it doesn’t formally start until July, the price exposure for companies was there the instant the law was officially passed). There does remain some uncertainty given the “blood oath” made by the current Opposition Leader to repeal the law, but at least for now the business playing field in Australia has changed.

The mechanism starts next July and is structured such that it transitions to an emissions trading system a few years later. This means that from the outset the approach is allowance based, with the government selling allowances at AU$23 per tonne of CO2 and then the same allowances being returned to government for emissions compliance. Somewhere around 2015 this will change in that the number of allowances available for distribution will be capped and banking of allowances, together with an opportunity to use offsets, will be allowed.

Australia has followed a near text-book approach to implementation as it has decided to recycle the funds collected directly back to consumers affected by the carbon price in the form of tax changes, with a bias towards those on lower incomes. Trade exposed industries will also see a direct recycle back, thus minimising the change in their international competitive positioning. The approach adopted by the government follows the cycle discussed in the WBCSD publication Carbon Pricing released earlier this year.

 The goal of a carbon price is to create a change in the economy such that the market begins to differentiate between goods and services on the basis of their carbon footprint.

In its generic realization, the carbon price, initially experienced by the emitter or fuel provider (e.g. by paying a tax, purchasing allowances from the government or implementing a required project), is passed through to the consumers of the product. The result is a change in the relative cost of most goods and services based on their carbon footprint, and the emergence of a new cost ranking within the economy. This will influence the purchasing decisions of consumers.

Products with a high carbon footprint will be less competitive, either forcing their removal from the market, or driving manufacturers to invest in projects to lower the footprint. Any revenue raised by the government from carbon pricing, will be typically directed to the treasury as part of the overall national budget process. It should be used efficiently; for example, to offset any net change in costs to the consumer by reducing taxes.

A transparent pass-through of operating costs to the consumer is an important feature of any market. It allows the manufacturer to adjust the sales price to maintain profitability, as new costs enter a process, or existing costs change. An increase in the sales price could only occur to the extent that the market allows the change to take place, due to competition from manufacturers with a different cost structure that may limit the potential for cost pass-through. This gives rise to one of the principal challenges of introducing carbon pricing into an economy.

Carbon pricing is being introduced piecemeal throughout the world. Some manufacturers incur the cost of carbon, while others do not, although they may be competing in the same market. A manufacturer incurring the cost of carbon is penalized, as the market price is set by a lower cost provider without the carbon price. This can result in “carbon leakage”, where a higher cost manufacturer struggles to compete, and market share is gained by a producer not subject to the carbon price. Consequently, the environmental integrity of the approach can be undermined and economic distortions introduced. A global carbon price is therefore important in order to gain a level playing field. Another challenge arises in heavily regulated markets where the producer may not be able to raise prices, and therefore cannot recover the carbon cost.

The design of a carbon pricing policy must recognize these issues.

Back in February when all this started, an observer might have thought that the economic roof had caved in.

But despite the difficult politics that have surrounded the proposal (now law), the government should be applauded for persisting. Regearing the economy and creating a different set of winners (and losers) somewhere down the road is not an easy task, but it has to be done.A command and control policy set which might appear as an alternative is both more expensive for consumers and far less flexible for business.

I happen to be in South Africa this week and a similar set of proposals is under discussion, although more likely implemented as a straight carbon tax. Australia and South Africa are similar in many respects – both are heavily dependent on coal and both are major resource based economies. South Africa will need to be even more thoughtful than Australia regarding recycle back into the economy, given the different income distribution in this country and the pressing need of access to electricity for all the population, but the principles which guide them should be the same. There is also the additional complication of having a state run monopoly providing electricity to the country, but even that is starting to change as the government looks at the introduction of independent renewable energy suppliers. As was the case in Australia, the battle lines are being drawn, at least according to the Cape Times today.

That part of the global economy exposed to a direct carbon price remains small, but it is rising and Australia is an important step, as will be South Africa. So far this isn’t enough to change the terms of the global energy mix, but it is having regional impacts. A similar move in China and / or the USA would change all that though.

Australia – the “Lucky Country”

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Australia has long been referred to as “The Lucky Country”, originally taken from the 1964 book of the same name by social critic Donald Horne.

I can only ever remember this being used in a favourable context, given the natural resources available to the country, the weather, the relaxed lifestyle and general high level of prosperity. But the origin of the title comes from the opening words of the book’s last chapter:

“Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.”

Horne’s statement was made ironically, as an indictment of 1960s Australia. His intent was to comment that, while other industrialized nations created wealth using “clever” means such as technology driven by relentless innovation, Australia did not. Rather, Australia’s economic prosperity was largely derived from its rich natural resources. Horne observed that Australia “showed less enterprise than almost any other prosperous industrial society.”

The greenhouse gas story in Australia has been an interesting analogy to this phrase. “Lucky” Australia has grown to become one of the most emissions intensive economies, by almost any measure. But the country has long ignored this given its relatively small contribution to total global emissions. Energy use in Australia results in about 400 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per annum, or just 1.3% of the global total – this is of course because of the very small population. 

Many will argue, and have done so, that irrespective of what Australia might or might not do, its actions will not change the prospects for this global issue, at least in terms of contribution to the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. In one sense this is true, but if such an argument is applied universally then we end up collectively doing nothing to reduce emissions. The same argument has also played out in very big economies such as the USA, where many will comment that the US acting alone will not solve the problem as China has become the largest emitter. It is equally prevalent in sectors who claim “exemption” based on the critical nature of the service provided or the benefit of the product or service in terms of its subsequent impact on emissions.

But last weekend, as a second attempt, Australia announced its intention to begin to reduce emissions and to introduce a policy framework that would steer it towards its goals. After much national debate which I have commented on in a number of previous postings (The nature of uncertainty, Tough times in Australia for carbon, Tough choices for Australia, A carbon price for Australia), a four part framework has emerged, consisting of a carbon price, renewable energy targets, energy efficiency programmes and a focus on land-use. Of these, the carbon price debate has probably been the most heated. The end result now proposed for legislation, is a fixed carbon price that will be introduced in 2012 with a gradual transition to full cap-and-trade starting three years later.

The proposal will also recycle most of its revenue back into the economy, through changes in the tax system and assistance to trade exposed industries. This is in alignment with the structure of a carbon pricing mechanism discussed in the WBCSD publication “Carbon pricing”, published earlier this year

Australia is now looking to change its luck, although there will certainly be more debate. The carbon price will focus minds, slowly driving Australia away from dependency on resources such as coal, requiring both the enterprise and innovation that Donald Horne advocated for back in the 1960’s.  So “the lucky country” moves on, but the more it moves in this particular direction, the luckier it will undoubtedly get.

The nature of uncertainty

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As the debate continues in Australia with regards the implementation of a carbon price, the issue of investor uncertainty has risen up the agenda. A recent interview conducted by ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) illustrates the point:

One of Australia’s largest home and business electricity suppliers has warned that household power bills will double in six years after a carbon price is introduced and uncertainty over its implementation might lead to power shortages.

The gas and electricity giant’s chief executive said uncertainty over what the long-term carbon price might be has stalled capital investment in the industry and halted construction of new power stations. “Capital is not being invested so we haven’t seen new power stations built,” the CEO told ABC TV today.

Electricity regulator Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) had forecast shortages of baseload power for Queensland in 2013 and 2014, with Victoria and NSW experiencing shortages in 2015 and 2016, he said. “Given the timeframe for building new power stations, we’re concerned that we need that certainty today so we can build power stations to meet that coming gap in the market,” the CEO said.

He said that gap had resulted in electricity prices rising by 40 per cent in the past three years as a result of network investment. Rising fuel and gas prices would cause them to increase by another 30 per cent over the next three years, the CEO said. The mooted carbon tax of between $20 and $25 a tonne of emissions would not change industry behaviour but would double electricity bills for households over six years given the 30 per cent rise, he said.

Without wanting to comment on any of the figures in the interview, it is nevertheless clear that uncertainty surrounding the implementation of policy is a problem for some, but should it be?

When it comes to power generation on a national scale, arguably the uncertainty question is about the exact nature of the policy rather than the existence of carbon policy at all. Although some will still choose to disagree, there really is very little uncertainty around the need to reduce CO2 emissions, so it is much more about how and when rather than if.

The “when” question is perhaps less uncertain than we might imagine. In the context of major power projects with planning, approval and construction periods of up to ten years, exposure to a carbon price during the operational lifetime of the facility (i.e. the 2020s and 2030s) becomes a near certainty. Although there is concern as to the lack of policy development in key regions today, it is also true that in the last ten years there has been a spectacular shift in the policy agenda. Carbon markets are a reality, global carbon trade exists, carbon targets are the stated goal of dozens of economies and most financial institutions now operate carbon business units of one sort or another (from trading to analysis). By 2020 and beyond, as the environmental picture becomes clearer, policy implementation will likely accelerate, even if it still isn’t sufficient to address the issue head on. So the working assumption should be that a carbon policy framework will be in place during the operational life of a project just starting out today.

So the real issue is “how” (in actual fact “how much”) – i.e. what will the policy look like and what sort of price signal will it send? This was probably at the root of the decision by a number of coal fired generators to actively engage in the formulation of US cap-and-trade policy in 2009 and 2010 – it wasn’t a burst of environmental enthusiasm that brought them to the table, but the sobering reality of a regulatory future that might be created without their input. Many companies now address this aspect of uncertainty with assumed carbon prices, as is the case in Shell today. From a planning perspective looking out 10-20 years, the actual shape of the policy isn’t that important, the key issue is the carbon price it might deliver. Even this can be picked apart based on signals from legislators today and arguments put forward by academia. For example, it is clear from signals in the EU and the UK that in the EU-ETS covered sector the desired outcome is a noticeable shift in the type of generating capacity, so we therefore shouldn’t imagine that a price of €5-10 will somehow suffice. Equally, there are enough technology options in play at the moment to offer significant emission reduction opportunites below €100 per tonne of CO2.

Although it all looks messy today, there is reason to believe that this issue is far more certain than it appears. Even in Australia, both parties now have carbon price policies of some sort whereas neither really did ten years ago. In Canada, there is the proposed moratorium on unabated coal which certainly injects a carbon price into the power sector and in the USA the progressive implementation of rules under the Clean Air Act may well persuade legislators to look again at a more comprehensive approach. Even if they don’t the CAA alone delivers a pretty powerful signal.

Of course, once governments start to collect significant revenue from carbon pricing policies, certainty abounds.

Tough times in Australia for carbon

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The development of an acceptable carbon price policy framework in Australia is proving to be both politically and socially challenging. Recent media reports indicate that the clear support from business for “carbon price certainty” has the caveat of competitiveness concerns and that public support is low, although arguably the public is never that enthusiastic about taxation.

. . . . . MINING giant Rio Tinto has added its weight to calls for Julia Gillard to reassure big polluting industries that her carbon tax plans will not damage Australia’s international competitiveness, warning it is unwise to act before China and the US. In an exclusive interview with The Weekend Australian, Rio Tinto chairman Jan du Plessis urged the Gillard government to rethink its carbon pricing policy and timing, saying it threatened the Australian economy when other leading economies appeared to be stalling on climate change action. “The question is, how and when does Australia move in the light of the disappointment of the Copenhagen conference and in light of the fact there are very few signs the big gorillas – the US and China – really are going to be moving,” the London-based Mr du Plessis said in Sydney.

 . . . . . This week, BHP Billiton chief executive Marius Kloppers warned the Prime Minister that Australia’s go-it-alone approach would be a “dead weight” on heavy polluting industries, and the nation should not penalise its “trade-exposed industries” by moving ahead of its international competitors.

There is far more opposition to a carbon tax than there is support for it, an opinion poll has found.

. . . . . the Newspoll, published in Wednesday’s The Australian newspaper, reveals 60 per cent of voters are opposed to the government’s plan to put a price on carbon next year, compared with 30 per cent who support it. Of the 60 per cent who are opposed to the tax, which Ms Gillard plans on introducing from July next year, 39 per cent of the poll’s participants said they are “strongly against” it. In comparison, of the 30 per cent who said they supported the carbon tax, only 12 per cent said they were “strongly in favour” of it.

Australia finds itself with mixed fortunes at the moment. While the resource companies benefit from a booming commodity market, they are equally struggling with costs as the Australian dollar continues to appreciate on international markets. The claim that a carbon price would further damage the competitiveness of the export based natural resources economy is making it appear that there are deep divisions in the business community over the issue, when in fact this may not be the case at all – despite the recent headlines!!

There are two fundamental principles of carbon pricing in play here and a balanced debate on these doesn’t seem to be making it into the press. Unfortunately the issue has also become politically charged with the division between the parties looking more like a chasm at the moment. Nevertheless, these principles should be discussed more widely – both feature in the recent WBCSD publication on carbon pricing which I discussed in my last post.

The first is the issue of the tax burden on society as a whole. A carbon price isn’t and never should be about increasing the net tax (revenue collection by government) burden on society, rather it should be about realigning the same level of revenue collection against a different metric, in this case carbon emissions. Introducing a carbon price into the principal domestic sectors of the economy and demonstrating an equal but compensating reduction in another revenue collection mechanism would be a bold move that clearly demonstrates to an increasingly skeptical public that this is all about change and not about revenue. The government has certainly talked about revenue neutrality, but has yet to give any real clarity as to what it means by “compensation to households”

It might be too late for a bold move, but doing so could also be a catalyst for simplification and a return to the very basics of the carbon price issue. For example, and this is purely for illustrative purposes, a $30 carbon tax in the electricity generation and personal transport sectors of the economy (nearly three quarters of energy use CO2 emissions come from these two sources, 220 MT + 70 MT out of 400 MT) would raise some $9 billion per annum. This is roughly equivalent to a reduction in Australian GST (Goods and Services Tax – VAT in the UK) from 10% to 8% (GST collects about $50 billion). GST may not be the right approach, but however such a compensating move is implemented, there is a desperate need for clarity around the principle of the approach, as discussed by WBCSD.

The goal of a carbon price is to create a change in the economy such that the market begins to differentiate between goods and services on the basis of their carbon footprint. In its generic realization, the carbon price, initially experienced by the emitter or fuel provider (e.g. by paying a tax, purchasing allowances from the government or implementing a required project), is passed through to the consumers of the product. The result is a change in the relative cost of most goods and services based on their carbon footprint, and the emergence of a new cost ranking within the economy. This will influence the purchasing decisions of consumers. Products with a high carbon footprint will be less competitive, either forcing their removal from the market, or driving manufacturers to invest in projects to lower the footprint. Any revenue raised by the government from carbon pricing, will be typically directed to the treasury as part of the overall national budget process. It should be used efficiently; for example, to offset any net change in costs to the consumer by reducing taxes. 

The second issue deals with the competitiveness of trade exposed industries. This is where much of the industry rhetoric is targeted and in fact the government has a reasonably complete and broadly fair position in this area, although an observer would struggle to know that looking at the press coverage. But there is some commentary getting out – for example in the Sydney Morning Herald this week in an opinion piece entitled “Carbon tax won’t kill the economy”. It’s worth reading the article as it’s too long to reproduce here, but the key point made at the end pretty much tells the story;

So it appears that the negotiation boils down to the gap between the government’s offer of 94.5 per cent compensation and the EITE’s call for 100 per cent. We are not too far apart here!

It’s easy to see how people can come to the, in my view, misguided conclusion that “a carbon price will kill the economy”.

If the whole economy was populated by highly emission intensive and trade exposed activities AND there was no compensation provided, perhaps then I would agree with the conclusion.

But clearly that’s not the case.

It’s not quite the case that the government is offering universal 94.5 % compensation, but there is a negotiation underway and the commentator is broadly correct with the view that the two sides are not that far apart.

This issue of trade exposure is also covered in the WBCSD publication as follows;

A transparent pass-through of operating costs to the consumer is an important feature of any market. It allows the manufacturer to adjust the sales price to maintain profitability, as new costs enter a process, or existing costs change. An increase in the sales price could only occur to the extent that the market allows the change to take place, due to competition from manufacturers with a different cost structure that may limit the potential for cost pass-through. This gives rise to one of the principal challenges of introducing carbon pricing into an economy.

Carbon pricing is being introduced piecemeal throughout the world. Some manufacturers incur the cost of carbon, while others do not, although they may be competing in the same market. A manufacturer incurring the cost of carbon is penalized, as the market price is set by a lower cost provider without the carbon price. This can result in “carbon leakage”, where a higher cost manufacturer struggles to compete, and market share is gained by a producer not subject to the carbon price. Consequently, the environmental integrity of the approach can be undermined and economic distortions introduced.

The design of a carbon pricing policy must recognize [this] issue[s]. For example, if the policy involves the use of an emissions trading system, the free allocation of a portion of the allowances to certain sectors means that they do not incur the direct cost, but retain the opportunity cost of carbon in the free allowances. The environmental goal is retained, since a fixed number of allowances are in circulation.

So the fiery debate continues in Australia and the politics gets murkier – it appears that this has become the new norm for climate change policy development in many countries. But it needn’t be, as there are clear paths open for both government and business to reach agreement and take the much needed policy forward.