From the moment Laurent Fabius nervously banged his gavel on Saturday 12th December, the newswires, bloggers and analysts have been writing about the success of COP21 and the ambitious nature of the Paris Agreement. Without doubt, more will be written in the weeks and months ahead. But the deal was done and many parts made it possible.
In the end it is the detail and implementation that will count. One critical aspect of implementation received a major boost from a short but very specific piece of text within the Paris Agreement; Article 6 might just be the additional catalyst that is needed for the eventual emergence of a global carbon emissions market and therefore the all-important price on carbon.
The Paris Agreement was never going to be the policy instrument that would directly usher in a global price on carbon; carbon pricing is a national or regional policy concern. But the Agreement could offer the platform on which various national carbon pricing policies could interact through linkage, bringing some homogeneity and price alignment between otherwise disparate and independently designed systems. The case for this was initially put forward through collaboration between the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) and the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts. A number of papers coming from the school underpinned a Straw-Man Proposal for the Paris Agreement, authored by IETA in mid-2014 and eventually published at the end of that year. The straw-man didn’t mention carbon pricing or emissions trading, it simply proposed a provision for transfer of obligation between respective INDCs, in combination with rigorous accounting to support said transfer.
. . . . . may transfer portions of its defined national contribution to one or more other Parties . . . . .
In addition, the straw-man proposed a broader mechanism for project activity and REDD+. The IETA team worked hard during 2015 building the case for such inclusions in the Paris Agreement. A number of governments, business groups and environmental NGOs came to similar conclusions; Paris needed to underpin carbon market development. After all, fossil fuel use and carbon emissions are so integrated into the global economy that only the power of the global market could possibly address the problem that has been created.
Roll on twelve months and the Paris Agreement now includes Article 6, which provides the opportunity for INDC transfer between Parties and a sustainable development mechanism to operate more widely and hopefully at greater scale than the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol. In the case of the transfer, Article 6 says;
. . . . . approaches that involve the use of internationally transferred mitigation outcomes towards nationally determined contributions . . . . .
While not exactly the same as the original IETA idea, it does the same job. Of course, like every other part of the Paris Agreement, this is just the beginning of the task ahead. The CDM within the Kyoto Protocol was similarly defined back in 1997, but it was not until COP7 in Marrakech in 2001 that a fully operational system came into being. Even then, the CDM still required further revisions over the ensuing years.
Exactly how the transfer between INDCs materializes in a UNFCCC context is not clear today, although such a transfer is a prerequisite for cross border linking, such as between California and Quebec or what might eventually become multiple US States and multiple Canadian Provinces. The good news for now is that the provision is there and its use can be explored and developed over the coming year before the COP convenes again in Marrakech in 2016. The eventual goal remains the globally linked market.
Of course, emissions trading and carbon pricing would function completely differently. Unless a trading scheme significantly raises ambition and effective action, the result of monetizing what would otherwise have been an obligation is only going to be lesser amelioration overall.
The dysfunction of the European Union’s Emissions Trading System, egregious fraud in China and Russia, and numerous instances of questionable or false representations about afforestation, biomass, etc., don’t bode well for an international system which accomplishes the goals. The impetus will favor profits over well-being of affected communities, and there will be continuing worldwide opposition on the basis of that reality.