Can a (second) global carbon market emerge?

At the very end of May Carbon Expo was held in Barcelona. It was an excellent event, overall attendance was good and there were still quite a few exhibitors at the Expo hoping for life in the project mechanism market of the current “global carbon market”. But this is an area of trade that is clearly struggling. 

Carbon Expo

The conference also offered an opportunity for the World Bank to release a new review of carbon market activity, which showed that there is at least quite a lot, even if price development is far from the levels required to ever make any discernible difference to global emissions.

 Carbon Markets (world Bank)


Carbon Expo consists of many events, plenary panels and side meetings and through these one of the subjects that attracted plenty of attention is the ongoing desire to see a global carbon market take shape. This seems like a rather odd desire since we have had something along these lines for the past decade under the Kyoto Protocol, but nobody really wanted to discuss that, even though it is clearly the approach that makes the most sense, is most robust in terms of compliance and has all the necessary bits and pieces actually up and running. Equally, it is withering on the vine. 

The desired alternative to a Kyoto style global market has yet to be specified, but it builds on the reality of the World Bank report which shows that there are lots of carbon market systems in various stages of development, implementation or operation and that if they could somehow be linked together a global market would coalesce. This follows from the excitement around the proposed link between the EU and Australian Emission Trading Systems.

Both the EU and Australia have called their proposed linkup a bilateral arrangement. That may well be the case, but it would have been an order of magnitude more difficult were it not for the fact that both systems were designed under the Kyoto Protocol framework, recognized the same types of offsets, counted carbon the same way etc. I discussed this back in September last year after the linkup was first announced.

So here we are in a world that has started once down the pathway towards a global carbon market, built all the required institutions and instruments necessary to run it, balked at using them but perversely still wants the market to develop. As such, discussions continue on how a global market might catalyze, with four models now in the picture. They are:

  1. The creation of an international compliance unit and a standard set of offset mechanisms. This is effectively a spinoff of the Kyoto Protocol, using the CDM, but creating a new international unit to replace the AAU (the KP “glue”). Such a unit would underpin national ETSs that voluntarily opt-in to the global market. An international registry would exist to keep track of the market and manage national compliance.
  2. A set of “exchange rates” evolve between national compliance units and project mechanisms, akin to currency exchange rates. This then supposedly solves the problem of different levels of national ambition, quality of offset projects and so on. The problem here is that CO2 is more like a fixed commodity type instrument, whereas currency (where exchange rates exist) is not a commodity but effectively a security (like a company share). The value of a security is set by the value of the whole that it represents (e.g. a company, a country). By contrast, a tonne of CO2 will always be a tonne of CO2.
  3. Bilateral arrangements continue and linkages simply evolve over time. The challenge comes when A links with B then B talks to C but A doesn’t want to link with C. Also, some very different designs may never be suitable for linking.
  4. International Measurement / Reporting / and Verification rules are expanded to cover the necessary requirements for linking. This is effectively like (1) above, but without the international unit or internationally regulated compliance.

The most robust approach exists in (1), but this is currently looking like the least likely outcome – many nations seem to be opposed to such an approach, at least for now. The opposition appears to extend from the idea of the UN managing national sovereignty in any form, such as evaluating national programmes and allocating international units against them, even though this is positioned as a voluntary opt-in process.

The exchange rate approach has instant appeal, simply because it allows the market to decide. But so far, I have not seen an explanation as to how it might actually work.

Evolution through bilateral agreement appears to be the most likely path forward, so the question remains if there is any role for the UNFCCC in such an approach. Perhaps it’s role is limited to maintaining offset mechanisms such as the CDM.

This remains a nascent discussion, with much thinking to be done.