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.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear