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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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