COP21: How are carbon markets doing?

The opening of COP21 has come and gone with some 150 statements from the pulpit by the largest collection of global leaders ever to assemble in one place. It wasn’t possible to listen to all of them as the group was split and parallel programmes ran in separate rooms. But with the benefit of the excellent webcast facilities provided by the UNFCCC it was possible to jump back and forth between the two groups and listen to a few key addresses. I was hoping for some solid mention of carbon pricing, but references were few and far between, despite the push by the World Bank to raise the profile and importance of government policy measures to introduce a price on carbon. However, the French Preident did make a particular reference.

Two other references that I heard are particularly important;

  1. The President of China, Xi Jinping, reiterated the plan to introduce an economy wide cap-and-trade system in that country.
  2. The new Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced that Australia would ratify the 2nd Phase of the Kyoto Protocol, covering the period from 2013-2020.

In one sense the Australian announcement might be seen as a symbolic gesture, in that the Kyoto Protocol is clearly winding down with the expected arrival of the Paris Agreement. However, the move could also  represent an important stake in the ground for the future. Australia has a growing resource sector, even during the current period of lower commodity prices. As such, reducing emissions almost certainly means attaching the economy to an international carbon market, such that even if domestic emissions do not immediately fall, the country can nevertheless pay its way in terms of reductions elsewhere. Australia will need a market architecture to do this and at least for the period up to 2020, the Kyoto Protocol is the only game in town. It will also allow Australia to hold on to offshore reductions made in the pre-2020 timeframe and carry them forward into the Paris Agreement period; assuming that period sees the development of some sort of carbon market framework and accounting.

Therein lays a problem. At least early on in the Paris deliberations, negotiators were already stuck, trying to find agreement between very basic accounting provisions and a more overarching carbon market framework for the Paris Agreement. Simple accounting is perhaps closer to the entirely bottom up nature of the Paris process, but a real market needs some form of framework to build on, particularly when the traded commodity within that market requires precise definition from government.

This is not to say that nobody is talking about carbon pricing in Paris. It was gratifying to see the new Prime Minister of Canada appear on the podium at the launch of the World Bank Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, which Shell has joined. Mr Trudeau had come from his leadership statement in the Plenary where he proudly announced, “Canada is back”. At the CPLC launch he spoke of the efforts of the Canadian Provinces in developing carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems.

But my early take is that the governments now represented in Paris have a way to go before fully recognising one important truth about climate policy. Implementing public policy to deliver a cost for emitting carbon dioxide as part of the energy economy is arguably the single most important step that can be taken to achieve the global goal of limiting warming of the climate system to as close to 2°C as possible.

On Wednesday evening (December 2nd) the business community made it very clear what they think on this issue. At an event in the IETA/WBCSD pavilion, a dozen or more major business association read out their statements on the importance of a carbon price and the inclusion of carbon market provisions within the expected Paris Agreement.

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