Collecting and spending carbon revenue

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.