Carbon Emissions Trading

Could Carbon Emissions Trading Become the New Bitcoin?

Carbon Emissions Trading
Emissions from steel works. Photo: Photo: Ashley Cooper/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

Carbon emissions trading is a type of policy that allows companies to buy or sell government-granted allotments of carbon dioxide output. The World Bank reports that 40 countries and 20 municipalities use either carbon taxes or carbon emissions trading. That covers 13% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Governments distribute a finite number of carbon credits to companies. That’s the “cap” part. The companies can only emit as much carbon dioxide as they have credits for. Those below their carbon dioxide limit can sell surplus credits to companies that exceed their limits. That’s the “trade” part. The goal is to slow down global warming. Industries, like utilities, are the biggest traders. They burn coal and other fossil fuels that emit too much carbon dioxide into the air.

How did this come about? The International Energy Agency recommended that no more than one-third of the world's reserves of fossil fuels be burned by 2050. If more is burned, the carbon dioxide will heat up the atmosphere to a dangerous level of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Scientists agree that the resultant climate change would cause flooding, drought, and hurricanes. 

Key Takeaways

  • Carbon emissions trading allows companies to buy and sell allotments of carbon dioxide output.
  • The goal of carbon emissions trading is to limit carbon dioxide emissions and slow down global warming. 
  • The European Union instituted a cap-and-trade program in 2005. 
  • The U.S. doesn’t have a national cap-and-trade program.

Cap-and-Trade Makes Carbon Trading Possible

Carbon emissions trading really took off when the European Union instituted a cap-and-trade program in 2005. It set a cap on the total amount of carbon dioxide that heavy industries and utilities could emit.

The cap must be low enough to actually reduce the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. If the cap is too low, then it will make the cost of doing business too high and slow economic growth. If the cap is too high, then it won't impact the pace of global warming.

In November 2017, the EU reduced the carbon cap by 2.2% each year through 2030. The cap was 1.74% annually. The cap's goal is to reduce carbon emission by 43% by 2030. It affects 11,000 energy and industrial plants. 

In the 1980s, President George H.W. Bush proved that cap and trade works. He used it to curb pollutants causing acid rain. It was the first such program in the world.

The Carbon Trading Market

The market for carbon trading was $176 billion in 2011. It could exceed $1 trillion by 2020. At least 84% of this is the EU's Emission Trading Scheme. It caps emissions for any company doing business in the EU.

As of 2021 there is no cap and trade program in the United States, despite some attempts at legislation. Some other countries are creating their own markets. As part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, all countries agreed to the Durban Platform in 2011. This said they would negotiate the details of a comprehensive global cap-and-trade program by 2015.  

How Trading Works

The cap allows each company to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide. The EU issues about 2 billion of these European Union Allowances each year. To comply with the EU mandate, companies may do any of the following:

  1. Take measures to emit only what they are allowed.
  2. Reduce their emissions below the allowed amount and sell or bank the surplus EUAs.
  3. Continue emitting above their allowance and buy EUAs in the marketplace.

Carbon Emission Reductions Credits

Certified Emission Reductions credits are also traded. Created by the Kyoto Protocol, they are credits issued to projects in developing countries that reduce emissions. 

There are also greenhouse gas emission credits, which cover more pollutants than just carbon dioxide. They can fulfill nation-specific caps in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Japan.

Is Carbon Emissions a New Form of Currency?

This ability to buy and sell EUAs, CERs, and other units on a freely traded market has created a new form of "currency." Traders include not only the emitters themselves but also banks, hedge funds, and other investors. They provide liquidity and increase market efficiency. A unit of carbon trading equals the reduction of one metric ton of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in other greenhouse gasses.

The idea of a tradable market based on something that is just a concept takes trading to a new level. Even if the value of a mortgage-backed security is far removed from its underlying asset, you can still trace it back to something tangible: a loan made by a bank to a person who owns a house. Increasingly abstract forms of currency are on the rise. The 2008 financial crisis was created by new types of derivatives. The values of these collateralized debt obligations and mortgage-backed securities expanded far beyond those of the hard assets upon which they were based. Creation of new forms of currency is bound to continue.

In some ways, carbon trading is a new form of currency. The value of EUAs, CERs, and the like can only be traced back to a colorless, odorless gas. But the monetary value assigned to a unit of that gas is based on how much damage it can do to the climate systems that affect all aspects of our lives. Like gold, but unlike a house, it doesn't really have a “useful” value other than what the market says it has. But the market didn’t assign that value arbitrarily. The value addresses a threat to the stability and safety of life on Earth.

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