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.

Show Hide image

Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.