FASTER carbon pricing mechanisms

Last week New York hosted amongst other events, the Papal visit, the UN General Assembly where some 150 world leaders gathered and Climate Week. Arguably this had the makings of a bigger coming together than COP21 itself, although many other issues were also on the agenda, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Nevertheless, the climate issue progressed and the subject of carbon pricing was widely discussed, both how it might be implemented by governments and how companies could use carbon valuation internally in relation to project implementation and risk management.

A highpoint of the Climate Week events was the release by the World Bank of its FASTER principles on implementation of carbon pricing mechanisms . This is work to support the overall push by that organisation for greater uptake of explicit carbon pricing mechanisms at national level as governments consider how they might implement their INDCs.

FASTER is an acronym, with each of the terms further elaborated in a fairly readable 50 page accompanying document. The short version is as follows;

  • F – Fairness
  • A – Alignment of Policies
  • S – Stability and Predictability
  • T – Transparency
  • E – Efficiency and Cost-Effectiveness
  • R – Reliability and Environmental Integrity

I have a slight feeling that the acronym was thought up before the words, but each of the subject areas covered is relevant to the design of a carbon pricing mechanism by governments, such as a cap-and-trade system.

Importantly, the principles recognise many of the key issues that early cap-and-trade and taxation systems have confronted, such as dealing with competitiveness concerns, managing competing policies and complementing the mechanism with sufficient technology push in key areas such as carbon capture and storage and renewables. The latter requires something of a Goldilocks approach in that too little can result in wasted resource allocation, but too much while also being wasteful can end up becoming a competing deployment policy.

In the various workshops held during Climate Week, one aspect of the FASTER principles that did draw comment was the call for a “predictable and rising carbon price”. Predictability should be more about the willingness of government to maintain the mechanism over the long term, rather than a clear sign as to what exactly that price might be. For the most part, commodity markets exist, trade and attract investment on the basis that they are there and that the commodity itself will continue to attract demand for decades to come. We are still some way from a reasonable level of certainty that carbon pricing policies will be in place over many decades, given that they do not enjoy cross-party support in all jurisdictions.

Particularly for the case of a cap-and-trade system, a rising carbon price cannot be guaranteed. Rather, the system requires long term certainty in the level of the cap, after which the market will determine the appropriate price at any given point in time. This might rise as the EU ETS saw in its early days, but equally the widespread deployment of alternative energy sources or carbon capture and storage could see such a system plateau at some price for a very long time. Even within this, capital cycles could lead to the same price volatility as is seen in most commodity markets.

The guarantee of a rising price may not be the case for a tax based system either. Should emissions fall faster than the government anticipates, there could be popular pressure for an easing of the tax. As carbon tax becomes mainstream, we shouldn’t imagine it would be treated any differently to regular income based or sales tax levels, both of which can fluctuate.

The release of the FASTER Principles coincides with my own book on carbon pricing mechanisms, which was launched just prior to Climate Week. I cover many of the same topics, but drawing more on the events that have transpired over the last decade. Both these publications will hopefully be of interest to individuals and businesses in China, the government of which formally announced the implementation of a cap-and-trade system from 2017. This will be an interesting implementation to watch, in that it may well be the first such system that operates on a rising cap, at least for the first few years. Irrespective, the announcement ensured that Climate Week ended on a high note.