Looking again at carbon pricing

It is Climate Week in New York and among the police barricades at the UN, the protests and traffic there is still the opportunity for new thinking and revisiting important subjects. Perhaps none is more important than the role that carbon pricing must play, yet its impact on the energy transition has been limited to date. One of the reasons for the modest uptake in carbon pricing (largely limited to the EU and a some parts of North America, but others now emerging, e.g. Singapore, South Africa and hopefully China) has been ongoing concerns relating to competition, be it for a single industry or more widely at national level compared to trading partners. By contrast, in the Shell Sky Scenario, government implemented carbon pricing emerges rapidly and robustly in the 2020s as part of a suite of critical policy measures to bend the global emissions curve and begin the long journey to net-zero emissions.

Sky Carbon Pricing

Following on from the Paris Agreement in 2015 the World Bank initiated a coalition to help usher in carbon pricing as a policy instrument. The Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition (CPLC) brings together governments, civil society and industry and offers a forum to learn and share ideas. To that end, the CPLC created the High Level Commission on Carbon Pricing and Competitiveness and at the opening of Climate Week the Commission launched its report on the issue.

CPLC Report

As the report discusses, those involved in the use of carbon pricing recognize the concerns that exist due to differential carbon prices between jurisdictions, currently ranging from zero (many places) to around $100 per ton of carbon dioxide (a few cases in some sectors in a handful of countries). There is the potential risk that high-carbon economic activity may move to regions without a carbon price or with a lower price. This could result in decreased profits and job losses. It could also exacerbate political push-back and undermine the intended environmental outcome of reduced GHG emissions. If this “carbon leakage” occurs, it would be a lose-lose: a loss of competitiveness or economic activity without an environmental gain.

But the report finds there is little evidence to date that carbon pricing has resulted in the relocation of the production of goods and services or investment in these products to other countries. This outcome is consistent with the economic literature assessing the competitive impact of environmental regulation more broadly. There may be several reasons for this, including the observation that carbon price levels have generally been moderate and existing programs include protection for at-risk sectors. In addition, tax rates, labour availability, and infrastructure may be more significant to investment decisions regarding location of production than environmental regulations.

While competitiveness remains a key concern for policymakers considering a price on carbon, the report argues that these concerns should not be overstated. Competitive risks exist primarily for highly emissions intensive and trade-exposed (EITE) sectors and jurisdictions that depend on such sectors. These risks can and should be addressed through a suite of locally tailored policy design choices intended to protect industry from unfair international competition even as they ensure that the incentive and support for low-carbon innovation remains.

The report points out that there are a variety of options to address competitiveness risks, including free allocation of emission rights and border measures. However, these should be based on a location-specific, data-driven evaluation of impacts. Once implemented, these measures should be periodically re-evaluated to ensure their effectiveness and usefulness. To that end, data transparency from industry, at least with government officials, is particularly important for assessing how and when intervention is necessary.

The report also revisited the broader carbon pricing subject for the sake of context and not surprisingly found that carbon pricing is an effective, flexible, and low-cost approach to reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs). Combined with other policies, carbon pricing can help accelerate and ensure a smooth transition to a low-carbon economy. Perhaps the more important context is that carbon pricing is intended to drive a shift away from high-emissions products to low-emissions products and processes. That intent may mean that some firms that compete against these low-emissions substitutes may experience a loss of market share and reduced profits even as others adapt, increase their profitability and develop new business models. That is the point of the instrument and more broadly, it is the point of the transition required to address the climate issue.

The CPLC isn’t the only organisation revisiting the basics of carbon pricing for Climate Week. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) released its own report on the views of the business community on carbon pricing.  The new WBCSD paper presents reasons why business supports carbon pricing as a critical enabler to raise climate ambition and calls for governments to put on a price on carbon and develop clear and consistent long-term carbon pricing policies as part of their national commitments and long-term strategies.

My own reflection on all this takes me to the movie Groundhog Day, but perhaps better phrased as Groundhog Decade when it comes to the climate issue. Ten years ago and in some cases more, I contributed to and was involved in the release of similar reports that came to the same conclusions and in some cases from the same organisations. Yet a decade later, the advance of carbon pricing as a preferred policy instrument has been modest at best and in the interim the largest implementation of carbon pricing (the EU ETS) spent much of the time languishing at very low levels and therefore having very little impact on the energy transition; fortunately in the case of the EU that has now changed. Not surprisingly, global greenhouse gas emissions have risen over the last decade.

But this time around something else has to change as there isn’t another decade to just discuss and think about the implementation of carbon pricing – in fact the decade just passed wasn’t thinking time either, it was the time during which all that had been discussed should have been implemented. Now there is no time for prevarication if the goals of the Paris Agreement are to be realised. The Sky Scenario and many other similar pieces of work make that abundantly clear.