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Europe’s Carbon Scheme Goes Up in Smoke

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Posted on Jan 27, 2013
Michael Filion (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Paul Brown, Climate News Network

This article originally appeared at Climate News Network.

LONDON—Carbon trading, one of the major European Union policies designed to combat climate change, is failing. A combination of successful lobbying by industry bodies, political interference and lack of economic growth has wrecked the scheme.

It is now cheaper to pollute the atmosphere than to invest in becoming energy-efficient.

Another blow came on Thursday (25 January) when a committee of European MPs voted down a scheme to rescue the carbon trading scheme. But there may still be a slim chance to save it.

The Environment Committee of the European Parliament is likely to be more sympathetic to a rescue package when it votes on 19 February, and with so much depending on the outcome there is potential for the whole Parliament to discuss support for the scheme in March.

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The original idea of the EU emissions trading system (or scheme), the ETS, was to set a maximum cap on carbon emissions from each factory or power station. This would force industry to become more efficient or to pay a high price for every extra tonne of carbon over the limit.

Industries would gain credits for reducing their emissions below the set limit and then sell them on the open market to polluters who had failed to act. The plan was to reward those who spent the money they earned on new technology or other efficiency measures.

Hitting the floor

The whole system depended on the price of the units of carbon being high enough to give polluters an incentive to reduce their emissions – but the price has now collapsed to an all-time low.

The scheme was launched on 1 January 2005 with caps on 11,500 plants across the 25 EU countries, amid high hopes that the market for carbon would help the European Union towards a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Carbon markets were set up to trade these notional units of tonnes of carbon saved. Analysts believed that the price needed to be between 20 and 50 euros a tonne to provide sufficient incentive for industry to become more efficient.

Despite early signs of success – when the price peaked at 30 euros a tonne in the summer of 2008 – the price of carbon never held up to the required level. In April 2010 the price had dropped to 15.30 euros a tonne when Germany sold 300,000 carbon permits. From there it continued to drift down and earlier this month dropped below five euros for the first time. It had become decidedly cheaper to pollute than to become efficient.

On Thursday the price briefly plunged further, to 2.81 euros, after a vote by the European Parliament Energy and Industry committee to support prices by withdrawing permits from the market and reintroducing them later. Members of the committee had been intensively lobbied by the European Steel Association (Eurofer).

This combination of successful lobbying by industry bodies and subsequent political interference has undermined the scheme. Special pleading that EU companies would be made uncompetitive if they had to pay too much for carbon credits, or spend too much on efficiency, meant that many industries were set emission caps that were too lenient.


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