EU carbon permit scheme gets a sticking-plaster fix

Permits to be backloaded, constraining supply.

The EU has finally got around to slapping a sticking-plaster on the woefully unfit-for-purpose carbon trading market. The European parliament has voted in favour of a plan to allow "backloading" of carbon permits — delaying the scheduled releases of permits by a couple of years — in order to deal with the record low prices those permits have reached (around €5 per tonne of CO2).

Alphaville's Kate Mackenzie writes:

The price collapse is down to a few things: slower economic growth, changes to the energy mix — and arguably, some imperfect policymaking to begin with.

The carbon permit scheme had always been disliked by many left-wing environmentalists for allocating initial permits based on emissions — and then increasing those allocations for the first few years of the scheme, albeit at a decreasing rate. The idea was to put a cap on the amount of emissions growth major companies could get away with, but as the economic slow-down and changing technology started to hit, those major companies found that they had far more permits than they needed.

The permit scheme eventually turned into a mild handout to the biggest companies, with the size of that handout vaguely dependent on how much they had cut their emissions.

If the backloading amendment works, it should constrict the supply of permits, and actually encourage those companies to cut their emissions again. If the scheme works well, the scarcity of permits should mean that there is a real financial cost to emitting excess CO2.

But the backloading will only help in the short run. The state of affairs is such that the EU still has to release those permits at some point. The Wall Street Journal yesterday looked at possibilities to move beyond the temporary fix, including:

Canceling CO2 permits, including other industries in the market to increase demand, or even a mechanism to directly manage the prices, which experts say could resemble the way central banks manage currencies.

The problem is that any plan which actually leads to a constraint on carbon usage is unlikely to be particularly popular with the businesses affected by it. The EU is basically in the same position it was when it tried to start the carbon permit scheme, except that now, industry can plead that it is already part of a carbon trading scheme.

Current legislation will expire in 2020, and from there, the EU can set about building an emissions reduction scheme which is fit-for-purpose. Until then, there'll be many more sticking plasters to come.

Photograph: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.