Carbon pricing is spreading rapidly around the world [i]. However prices almost everywhere are far too low at the moment to price emissions efficiently. The chart below summarises carbon prices in those jurisdictions with pricing. The horizontal axis shows volumes, the vertical axis shows prices, as in a conventional commodity supply curve. The vast majority of priced emissions – about 90% of the total – are priced below $14/tCO2. Higher carbon prices are invariably for small volumes, and are found only in Europe and British Columbia. They include prices under the French carbon tax, which covers sectors outside the EUETS, the UK carbon price floor, where the EUA price is topped up, and longstanding carbon taxes in Scandinavia.
The chart also shows the social cost of carbon – which represents the cost of the environmental damage caused by emissions – as estimated the US EPA. This is almost certainly an underestimate[ii] of the true cost, and the concept has other limitations that imply it is no more than a lower bound to what it is worth paying to avoid emissions. Carbon prices are thus too low even compared with a likely underestimate of the cost of emissions. Taxes are too low and caps are too loose to price carbon adequately. Consequently efficient abatement is not happening[iii].
Prices and volumes of carbon pricing around the world
Price data is from May 2015. I have excluded the Mexican carbon tax on the grounds that it does not apply to natural gas and so does not fully tax carbon. The Chilean carbon tax is included although it does not come into force until 2018. The South African carbon tax is scheduled to be introduced next year, but may be postponed, or may not be introduced at all. The EUETS price would be somewhat higher but for the weakness of the Euro against the dollar at the moment. The Social Cost of Carbon is the US EPA estimate at a 3% discount rate and converted to $2015 – see reference 2.
Prices may increase in future. However this process looks likely to be too slow in most cases. For example, under the California and Quebec scheme prices are currently at the floor set by the auction reserve. This escalates at 5% p.a. real terms. However at the present rate this will take until around 2050 to catch up even with the EPA’s estimate of the social cost of carbon[iv], which also shows increases in real terms over time. Prices elsewhere in North America are mostly lower still. In the EU there is little evidence from forward markets that allowances will reach significantly closer to the social cost of carbon over the next few years, and it seems unlikely that China will seek to price emissions at much above levels that prevail in the EU and North America. It therefore seems likely on present trends to be a long time before prices in major jurisdictions reach levels that reflect the cost of damage from climate change, or are sufficient to limit temperature rises to two degrees.
This implies that further action is needed to make higher prices more politically acceptable. Doing this will be a huge challenge, but two strands of any solution appear clear. Ensuring that industry that is genuinely vulnerable to carbon leakage is appropriately safeguarded from competitive distortions will help mitigate political obstacles to higher pricing. And efficient carbon pricing may further be helped by more explicit recycling of revenue to citizens, including ideas such as cap-and-dividend, in which the proceeds of sale of allowances under a cap-and-trade scheme are returned directly to citizens. This in effect defines citizens as owners of the right to emit and so gives everyone a stake in higher prices (more on this in a future post). Elements of such an approach are evident in British Columbia and were part of the former Australian scheme.
Measures other than carbon pricing are in any case necessary to bring about the required transformation of the energy sector[v]. And while carbon prices remain too low there will be an even greater need for such approaches, even if these may sometimes themselves help keep the carbon price low. Funds to subsidise deployment of low carbon technologies may come from the proceeds of carbon pricing, especially in jurisdictions such as North America where earmarking of revenues is common.
The spread of carbon pricing is a success story, but a limited one in view of the prices prevailing to date. Efforts both to strengthen the carbon price and enhance complementary policy approaches are needed if climate change is to be limited to acceptable levels.
Adam Whitmore – 2nd June 2015
[iii] The marginal price signal is at too low a level, so some economically efficient abatement is not being signalled. It is possible that an inefficient mix of abatement is being purchased, even though the level of abatement is efficient. This could be the case if, for example, there was too much expensive abatement through renewables programmes. However for a number of reasons this does not seem plausible. For example, abatement is currently insufficient to meet the agreed 2 degree target, and support for renewables globally is clearly not excessive in view of their present share of generation and the required speed of reduction (although it may well be desirable for more of the support to be in the form of a higher carbon price on fossil fuel use).
[iv] Escalating the current carbon price at 5% real terms to 2050 gives a price of about $74/tCO2, roughly in line with the EPA’s central estimate of the Social Cost of Carbon at that date of 2011$76/tCO2.