Good News or Bad News

Recently Reuters reported that the Japanese government is looking at developing its own version of the Clean Development Mechanism (the offset / project mechanism instrument within the Kyoto Protocol). Japan has been a significant buyer of CERs (Certified Emission Reduction Units) in recent years, both directly and through voluntary agreements with Japanese industry but like many participants in this market has reportedly been frustrated by the bureaucracy of the CDM and the specific requirements placed on a project such that it is eligible. Nevertheless, with Japan and the EU as the principal buyers of CERS, the CDM system will have issued some 1.8 billion CERs by the end of 2012, which in turn equates to about $25 billion in carbon value and certainly more in overall project investment. Whilst the same investment may well have gone to developing countries anyway, it would not have been so focused on low carbon projects such as land-fill methane capture, wind and hydro.

To its credit much has been achieved under the CDM, but it remains an instrument of the Kyoto Protocol and subject to the jurisdiction of the CDM Executive Board (EB) which in turn operates through the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol. Above all else, the CDM has shown that a project mechanism can work and importantly can enable a targeted low carbon investment stream into developing countries. As a result, the idea of an offset / project mechanism of some sort exists in many government’s plans for legislation. But therein lies what is becoming a problem – each government wants a “made at home” solution. The latest incarnation of this is Japan.

Apart from government-to-government AAU transactions (under the Kyoto Protocol), the CER is the pretty much the only single fungible carbon price instrument globally. It can be utilized by all the Kyoto Annex 1 countries for compliance and in some cases that compliance has been cascaded down through the economy such that business trades CERs. This in turn links the carbon price those economies and allows at least some measure of optimization between them, albeit limited today. Optimization in turn means a lower cost of compliance for the economies in question. Multiple, jurisdiction specific offset mechanisms would prevent this from happening. The accreditation of a given project would typically be against one set of rules and therefore the resulting credits could only be used for compliance where those rules originate. Project developers would find the cost of multiple jurisdiction accreditation prohibitive. This means that there would be no linking mechanism between the systems and no opportunity to optimize. The result – a lost opportunity and a higher cost outcome. There will also be additional costs for the governments involved. Establishing the necessary monitoring and accreditation bodies is a complex and expensive task, just look at the CDM EB. Finally, it may be wrong to assume that it will all somehow be easier if done at home – even local solutions will have teething problems and will likely face all of the issues all over again that have been dealt with by the CDM EB.

So whilst it is good news that governments continue to favour market mechanism approaches to emission reductions, it may be bad news if they each try a home grown solution. At a very minimum, a global deal on project mechanism design and implementation, ideally building on but learning from the CDM, would be a solid achievement from the UNFCCC process in Cancun.