EU cap-and-trade system left to die by EU parliament

The ETS is dead, long live climate change.

The European Union has voted not to limit the supply of carbon permits, in a move that's widely thought to have dealt "a near-mortal blow" to the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme, according to Alphaville's Kate Mackenzie.

The ETS is supposed to limit the amount of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere, by requiring permits to pollute. The idea was that companies who needed to release greenhouse gases would have to buy the right to do so from companies which had managed to cut their emissions, and a market-based solution to climate change would be found.

Unfortunately, the way the permits were allocated was to give them to companies based on their emissions in year zero, and then only increase the quantity by a little bit each year, limiting growth in emissions. Unfortunately, the global financial crisis came along and did that for us: output fell, and with it, so did emissions. But the number of permits available kept increasing, and now the EU faces a situation where they are basically worthless.

The initial sticking-plaster solution was to "backload" the permits, delaying the scheduled releases by a few years, in order to bring supply back down to a level where it would start constraining carbon emissions again. But on Wednesday evening, the EU parliament voted against the backloading, sending prices tumbling:

Iza Kaminska draws parallels with the Bitcoin crash:

All in all this is yet another valuable lesson in what happens when you make asset classes out of nothing. Unlike with Bitcoin, the cyber-spawned crypto-currency based on nothing but black market interests, the lesson here is not the fact that there is no authoritative mandate, mutual interest or even value — but rather that there is no central authority on standby to flexibly adjust and regulate supply.

But looking at the ETS in terms of its efficiency as a market is somewhat missing the point. The aim, after all, isn't to provide a stable investment vehicle or create an asset class for the sake of it – it's to reduce carbon emissions. The problem is that political constraints were never going to allow the EU to make a carbon market which would actually have a chance of doing that.

The IEA reports that a carbon price of €50 a tonne – ten times the price of an ETS permit at its peak yesterday – is needed just to encourage a switch in the short term from coal to gas generation. The price – and stability of price – required to encourage investment in completely carbon-free generation is likely to be higher still (although renewables advocates disagree). In that context, whether the ETS permits are trading at €3 or €5 is almost irrelevant. Neither price will have anywhere near the required effect.

In that context, maybe the damage done to the ETS is a good thing. Now that it's fairly conclusively demonstrated to be doing nothing to cap emissions, the EU could start getting moving on a genuine market based solution to climate change – a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade program which actually pays attention to the "cap" part. Either way, it's going to be a while yet.