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.

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 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!