IHS Chemical Week


Carbon Market Insights Notes

3:14 PM MST | November 3, 2009 | By VINCENT VALK

I've spent much of the past day and a half at Carbon Market Insights Americas 2009 at the Marriot Marquis Hotel here in New York. Here are some major takeaways:

Don't expect too much out of Copenhagen. It will probably be yet another round in ongoing talks and not the end of them, or even the beginning of the end. For example, Sun Guoshun of the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. said at one panel that his country is asking developed nations to commit to 40% emissions reductions by 2020. This is not going to happen, as Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations pointed out, noting that even a 25% cut in that timeframe is optimistic. Copenhagen could see agreement on a long-term global reduction goal and the implementation of measurement, verification, and accountability systems, Levi says. It occurs to me that global climate negotiations may wind up taking the shape of global trade negotiations, nudging the idea forward with regular talks and different 'rounds' (Kyoto and Copenhagen akin to Uruguay and Doha).

Both Kerry-Boxer and Waxman-Markey allocate the vast majority of emissions permits for free. Industry likes this. But plenty of other players don't. Bill Massey, a partner at law firm Covington & Burney, and former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) member, had perhaps the line of the day at a roundtable today: "this program [cap and trade] isn't supposed to be painless." Allocating allowances for free "seriously blunts the price signal" which is supposed to commoditize carbon and spur clean investment. While softening cap-and-trade's potential economic blow makes sense to an extent, it is worth considering what free allocation really means. The ultimate goal of any cap-and-trade system is not to create a new market for financial institutions or to aid the business of industrial companies. It is to reduce – drastically reduce, in the long-term – carbon emissions. Free allocation, whatever its other benefits, hinders that goal, plain and simple.

Speakers at multiple events touted the Obama administration's record on climate change. I don't deny that, in spite of the difficulties of getting legislation through Congress, it's been impressive. A year ago, the U.S. effectively had no climate policy. That fact bears repeating: A year ago, the U.S. effectively had no climate policy. So, the Obama administration's main achievement has been to, essentially, create a U.S. climate policy. This is substantial and very important. But it's hard not to move forward when you've spent nearly a decade sitting in neutral and you suddenly decide to shift into drive. Much of what the Obama administration has done is long overdue.

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