It’s no to backloading in the EU ETS, so now what?

As is well known by now, the EU MEPs voted against the specific backloading proposal that was put before the Parliament. However, the Parliament also voted against the outright rejection  of the proposal, which means that the Parliament formally has no position on backloading, possibly leaving the door open for a reformulated attempt at passage. I won’t dwell on that as it probably requires too much speculation and intrigue even for a blog.

The situation the EU finds itself in is spelled out in more generic form in the new Shell New Lens Scenarios. The scenarios tell stories about the future, but these are built around a series of paradoxes and pathways, with the latter illustrated below.


When the financial, social, political or technological capital encourage early action, it can result in effective change and reform. Room to manoeuvre exists and a new pathway forward is forged. But when such capital proves inadequate to withstand the stresses applied, behavioural responses delay change, causing conditions to worsen until ultimately a reset is forced or a collapse occurs. This is a trapped transition. 

The EU seems to be getting quite good at the latter, with the New Lens booklet giving the example of the EU handling of the financial crisis as a Trapped Transition Pathway;

The “can” keeps being “kicked down the road” while leaders struggle to create some political and social breathing space. So there is continuing drift, punctuated by a series of mini-crises, which will eventually culminate in either a reset involving the writing off of significant financial and political capital (through pooling sovereignty, for example) or the Euro unraveling.

Similarly for the EU ETS. While backloading was never the complete solution to the problems faced by the ETS, it could have given it enough momentum to see through a series of much needed reform measures, paving the way to a more robust and economically efficient climate policy framework. Instead, the Parliament has “kicked the can down the road”, setting up the conditions for further crisis later on. This in turn could do real damage to the ETS, leading to a very negative outcome, i.e. Write-off & Reset or Decay/Collapse. Many of those who opposed the backloading amendment argued that it was better to wait for the full structural reform discussion, but that discussion has no formal schedule and is unlikely to commence before the full debate on the 2030 roadmap. Even then, opposition will rear its head again and the structural reforms required could well be watered down.

The vote attracted quite a bit of media attention, with many articles and significant commentary.  Perhaps strongest of all was The Economist, which spoke of “profound consequences” that will “reverberate round the world”. The Financial Times took a different view in its editorial, effectively arguing that the backloading itself was akin to “kicking the can down the road” and instead called for the structural reform to start in earnest and “end the system’s absurdities”. This included border carbon adjustments, long term targets (of the 2050 variety) and dealing with the surplus of allowances.

I have and continue to be an advocate of emissions trading and carbon pricing, but it is looking increasingly unlikely that these systems will ever effectively trigger the one essential response to rising CO2 emissions, which is carbon capture and storage (CCS). There are too many other vested interests which continue to suck the life out of an ETS, including competitiveness concerns from participants, renewable energy targets, energy efficiency mandates, developing country needs and environmental justice to name but a few. These are all important policy desires, but they need to find their home elsewhere and not in the space occupied by an emissions trading system.

In the end if the ETS approach doesn’t deliver CCS in particular, then some form of mandated requirement could be imposed instead.