After San Francisco . . . .

In mid-September the climate change focused world turned its attention to San Francisco to attend, watch, listen and participate in the myriad of events surrounding the Global Climate Action Summit. The Summit was designed to show the extent of action taking place around the world to respond to climate change, but it was also a political statement of intent that the United States remained committed to the goals of the Paris Agreement through the actions of States, cities and the business sector.

There is no doubt that a wide range of actions are underway and that a major energy transition is in its early days of ushering in significant change. But does all this add up to a pathway that meets the goals of the Paris Agreement? Earlier this year Shell published its Sky scenario, which illustrates the depth and breadth of change required in the coming decades. One of the key drivers of the required change in Sky is the widespread use of policy mechanisms, both market based and mandated requirements. Within the mix, carbon pricing looms large, as shown in the chart below.

Graph 10

The exact nature of the carbon pricing mechanism is not specified in Sky, but it would include all the various forms seen around the world today, ranging from taxes, cap-and-trade, baseline-and-credit and so on. What is clear though in Sky, is that even by 2020 some form of carbon pricing is at least getting going in most jurisdictions and that by 2030 it is very well established, both in terms of coverage and impact.

Yet in the days after the San Francisco summit, the OECD released a report which showed just how large the gap is between where the world ought to be with this policy approach and where it actually is. The report looks at the use of carbon taxes, carbon allowance-based systems and specific fossil fuel taxes. The report notes that the latter have distorted the overall picture owing to the prevalence of gasoline taxes in various parts of the world. These taxes have led to greater efficiency in markets where they are imposed, but have not ushered in a transport transition.

Overall the report finds that the aggregate carbon pricing gap is declining at a snail’s pace. Using EUR 30 per tonne of CO2 as a benchmark, the gap for the 42 countries (OECD+G20 cover 80% of global emissions) as a whole dropped from 83% in 2012 to 79.5% in 2015, and is estimated to reach 76.5% in 2018. The authors note that new carbon pricing initiatives have the potential to significantly reduce the carbon pricing gap, with emphasis on the China ETS starting up soon. However, the report doesn’t include recent back-tracking such as in Ontario where the cap-and-trade system was halted. Even more recently, political disagreement has led to another setback in Australian climate policy.

Even as carbon pricing slowly grows in coverage, more companies adopt science-based targets and more cities pledge to use renewable energy and force certain vehicle types out of use, global emissions continue to rise. The sum of the parts is not yet close to adding up to a change of direction for the whole. This may be related to one salient aspect of the OECD report; the lack of carbon pricing coverage of industrial emissions. In the chart below extracted from the OECD report, industrial emissions are hardly touched by carbon pricing, yet as global development proceeds rapidly and GDP rises, it is industrial emissions that rise as cities are constructed, cars built and domestic appliances manufactured in the hundreds of millions of units.

Carbon pricing coverage OECD and G20

For the most part industrial emissions are not covered by city pledges and looking at the list of companies with science-based targets, large industrial entities are a small subset of the ~500 companies that have adopted this approach. Even at national level, industrial emissions have been difficult to account for. Many OECD countries have moved industrial operations offshore, therefore seeing an apparent fall in domestic emissions even as they import embedded emissions in various goods and services.

San Francisco was a landmark event and a timely celebration of progress to date, but so much more remains to be done. At the heart of the effort must be a more comprehensive and joined up approach across national borders to carbon pricing. Voluntary and locally mandated distributed action is a worthy stopgap measure, but it is unlikely to put the world on a ‘well below 2°C’ pathway.