Carbon Markets: Reducing Carbon Emissions or Missing the Mark?

Carbon Markets: Reducing Carbon Emissions or Missing the Mark?

Used under Creative Commons license via Wikipedia, image by Arnold Paul cropped by Gralo.

The Clean Power Plan is the predominant plan in the U.S. to address climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is encouraging states to set up regional carbon markets to comply with the plan; however, carbon markets to date have not achieved their intended goals. If states follow the EPA’s advice and set up new carbon markets across the country, they must learn from past mistakes to prevent more of the same underwhelming results.

California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) is the most prominent U.S. example of a carbon market that has resulted in unexpected outcomes. AB 32 includes a cap-and-trade program to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The program sets a statewide emissions cap and then distributes emissions allowances to industries covered under the regulation (“covered entities”). A majority of the allowances are given away for free—a reversal of the polluter pays principle—and the remainder are auctioned off quarterly. Each year, the emissions cap and the number of free allowances each covered entity gets are ratcheted down. Ratcheting is intended to increase the value of allowances, but this strategy has not worked as of yet.

On May 18, 2016, the California Air Resources Board held its quarterly auction of allowances. Just over 10 percent of the allowances up for auction sold, and all of them sold at the price floor. This left California $600 million short of projected revenues. Although the purpose of the carbon market is not to generate revenue for the state—it’s to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—the May auction’s outcome demonstrates that allowances may not be scarce enough to drive competition for them and raise their value.

One reason for the low allowance sales and prices at the auction is the secondary market, which the state set up for covered entities to buy and sell allowances outside of the quarterly auctions. Speculators bought up allowances in earlier auctions hoping to buy and sell them for a profit on the secondary market when prices rose. But, with too many allowances on the market at low prices and with the future of the cap-and-trade program beyond 2020 in question, the allowances were dumped at even lower prices on the secondary market. At the May auction, it was cheaper to buy allowances on the secondary market than at the official auction.

The California market’s structure requires auction revenues to be used for projects that reduce greenhouse gases and environmental burdens, specifically in disadvantaged communities. Many power plants, coal mines and fracking sites are located in communities, often rural areas, already burdened by high poverty rates. These communities pay the price of the pollution through worsened public health and deteriorated natural resource bases. Because the auction revenues fell short in May, anticipated investments in California climate programs will now be much lower than expected. Cap-and-trade mechanisms have proven to be an unreliable and insufficient funding source and should not be the primary source of funding for critical climate change programs.

California’s cap-and-trade system is not the first carbon market to underperform. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade system among nine northeastern states, had an overabundance of allowances for years that were also sold at the market’s floor price. The EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) is no different; due in part to an economic recession and an over-allocation of allowances at the outset, allowance prices fell from over 20 Euros/ton in 2011 to just 2.75 Euros/ton in 2013. In order for a carbon market to be effective, it must sufficiently limit allowances and maintain high enough prices to motivate industries to reduce their emissions. Without an effective cap or price on carbon, polluters will continue polluting at whatever rate their profit objectives dictate.

The United States now has a nationwide carbon reduction policy through the Clean Power Plan, and states have until 2018 to create State Implementation Plans outlining how they will meet their emissions reduction goals. Although the EPA has encouraged carbon markets as a cost-effective way for states to meet their targets, carbon markets are not the only way to limit emissions and raise public revenue. If the Clean Power Plan does drive the creation of more carbon markets, it’s imperative that states learn from the mistakes of past markets by pricing allowances high enough, making the number of available allowances low enough and continually ratcheting down the number of allowances available to create real motivation for emissions reductions. The Clean Power Plan must avoid building more carbon markets that don’t live up to their promise.