The future of carbon pricing

At this time of the year I usually review the progress in implementing carbon pricing around the world, but it seems timely to look more closely at where carbon pricing policy might be headed. That timeliness is driven by the bushfires in my home country of Australia, where the media have resurfaced the 2008 Garnaut Report. The Garnaut Climate Change Review looked in depth at the climate issue and also recommended ways in which the Australian Government might take on the task of emissions mitigation. The recent resurfacing of the report has come about due its very specific comments on bushfires, which have always been an important issue in Australia. Notably, the report says;

Garnaut Report on Bushfires

So here we are in 2020 and the effect is indeed very observable. But of equal importance are the recommendations on mitigation that Garnaut put forward. He proposed that Australia implement an emissions trading system, similar to that operating in the EU, with a view to inserting a carbon price into the Australian economy and allowing it to efficiently drive down emissions. After more than a decade of political wrangling, there is no carbon price in Australia and energy system emissions remain today at about the level they were when Garnaut penned his report.

Garnaut Report ETS

Unfortunately the Australian story is not unique. As the reality of a changing climate has become increasingly apparent and despite widespread agreement among economists that a carbon pricing system of some form is the most economically efficient way of driving down emissions, the global uptake of this policy instrument remains limited.

The World Bank compiles a detailed list of carbon pricing systems and it shows that over 50 systems exist around the world, notionally covering over 20% of global emissions. But a deeper look reveals that most of these are very light taxes, typically under US$10 per ton of carbon dioxide. Many of the other systems are still in various stages of implementation, but there are a handful of systems that stand out;

  • The EU Emissions Trading System has been operating for 15 years and trades close to €25, but spent more than six years below €10 following the 2008 financial crisis. It covers half of EU energy system emissions.
  • The British Columbia carbon tax has been in operation since 2008 and operates at CAN$40 per ton.
  • The California cap-and-trade system (also linked with Quebec) has operated since 2012 and trades at nearly US$20 per ton.
  • Korean ETS has been operating since 2015 and trades at nearly US$30 per ton.
  • New Zealand have been a stalwart of emissions trading and have an economy wide system that has operated for many years and currently trades around NZ$30.

 

World Bank Carbon Pricing

Source: World Bank

Nearly a quarter of a century into carbon trading and pricing, taking the 1997 Kyoto Protocol as a starting point, progress is muted at best and certainly not commensurate with the task at hand. In the Shell Sky Scenario, carbon pricing is a critical component for success, with implementation becoming global over the 2020s and a price range of $25-$60 developing by 2030.

Sky Carbon Prices

But the harsh reality is that there is little sign of this happening, despite the need and despite the economic efficiency of the approach. Implementation can be challenging for policy makers; in some countries even small forced price changes in goods and services, sometimes linked to carbon price implementation, have led to street protests and worse. While some governments have tried to impose carbon pricing, the outcome often ranges from tepid implementation at a very modest price level to eventual retraction (e.g. Ontario). Others just seem to be philosophically allergic to the idea. So where does that leave us?

Explicit carbon pricing through taxation and trading systems may well have seen its best days, which perhaps means a turn towards more implicit mechanisms through standards and mandates. These may well be more expensive for society to implement but are often price opaque or even price invisible. Renewable energy mandates have had considerable success, so we may well see this type of policy imposed more broadly in areas such as transport (favoring Electric Vehicles) and home heating (requiring certain technologies in new builds and renovations). Within the industrial sector, a standard that prevents emissions would force the use of carbon capture and storage, with an implied carbon price of perhaps $50-$100 per ton.

The financial markets are beginning to impose a carbon price of sorts, with finance and investment for coal technologies becoming harder to find and some equity market commentators attempting to dissuade investment in certain companies with links to fossil fuels. In the week of the UN Climate Summit last September, an alliance of several large pension funds and insurers responsible for directing more than US$ 2.4 trillion in investments and under the name Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance, committed to carbon-neutral investment portfolios by 2050.

Some governments are looking at border tariffs based on the carbon content of imported goods, which offers another more opaque means of imposing a carbon price.

Despite the above, carbon pricing won’t go away and as emissions eventually fall (which they will) a price could well emerge as a direct cost for carbon dioxide removal. The aspiration or even requirement to be a net-zero emitter will mean the funding of atmospheric carbon dioxide removal to balance remaining emissions. This could occur through natural solutions such as reforestation, or through technical means such as direct air capture and geological storage, but probably both. Sequestered carbon could become a commodity of sorts, trading widely and imposing a form of carbon price throughout society.

At the start of this new decade, carbon pricing may well be at a crossroads. Direct implementation through taxation and emissions trading systems is looking harder, even though it remains the preferred solution from an economic efficiency perspective. While the pressure to develop carbon pricing systems should not be eased, we may nevertheless see direct carbon pricing approaches take a back seat to more opaque mechanisms. But the eventual goal of net-zero emissions implies a price to deliver on the ‘net’. That is emerging today through trade in nature-based offsets, but largely in the voluntary markets. Eventually, a regulatory approach should emerge and then carbon sink pricing will be here to stay.