Fixing the starting price of allowances in an ETS

Fixed price allowances can be a useful way of establishing emissions trading gradually.

I have previously looked at the relative advantages of carbon taxes and emissions trading systems (ETSs), including in the videos on this site.

Among the drawbacks of emissions trading systems is that they tend to be more complex to administer than carbon taxes.  An emissions trading system requires surrender of allowances, which need to be issued, often by both auction and free allocation, and tracked as they are traded.  There is a range of administration needing for this, including maintaining a registry of allowances and ownership.  In contrast, a tax simply requires a payment to be made per tonne emitted.

The administrative cost of emissions trading is unlikely to be a significant proportion of the costs of a system for a large jurisdiction with high administrative capacity, for example the EU.  However it can be daunting for smaller jurisdictions with more limited administrative capacity.  Even a large jurisdiction may be concerned about the time needed to establish an emissions trading system.

There may also be concern about the economic the risks.  For example, there will always be uncertainty about price when the cap is first set.

These difficulties can be reduced by including an initial phase of fixed price allowances.  Under this approach emitters pay a fixed price per tonne.  However rather than simply paying a tax they are required to surrender allowances.  An unlimited number of allowances is available from the regulatory authorities at a fixed price.

This approach has the advantage that it puts in place much of the administrative infrastructure necessary for emissions trading.  Allowances are issued and a registry is established.  From there it is a more straightforward path to limiting the number of allowances to impose a cap, and allowing them to be traded.

It has the further advantage that it can introduce a carbon price, perhaps gradually through and escalating price, and the effect of this can be assessed when setting  a subsequent the cap.  The additional information can further reduce risks.

The Australian example

This approach of issuing fixed price allowances was implemented in Australia, starting in 2012.  An initial 3 year phase was originally planned with emitters required to surrender allowances.  An unlimited number of allowances was available each year at a fixed price.  This was AU$23/tonne in the first year, escalating at 2.5% plus the rate of inflation each year. This was intended to be followed by a transition to an emissions trading system with a cap and a price floor.

The chronology in practice was as follows.  Legislation to introduce carbon pricing was passed in 2011.  The fixed price came into effect ion 1st July 2012, with unlimited allowances available at AU$23/tonne.  Full trading was originally scheduled to being in 2015.  In 2013 it was announced this would be brought forward a year to 2014.  However this did not happen, as the incoming Abbott government, which took office in September 2013, repealed the carbon pricing scheme with effect from July 2014.

In the Australian political context that prevailed at the time the similarity to a tax was seen as a drawback politically.  It allowed the opposition to label it a tax, which the previous government had committed not to introduce.  A very sensible approach was therefore abandoned.  However this was a feature peculiar to Australian politics at the time, and not a more general problem.

The EU and the Western Climate Initiative have both shown that it is possible to establish emissions trading systems directly, without the need to go through an initial fixed price phase (the WCI systems were delayed by a year from their originally intended start date, but have generally worked well since).  And some jurisdictions will choose a tax in any case.

Nevertheless, if there is a desire to put an ETS in place in a way which lowers the initial administrative burden and some of the risks of establishing an ETS, then transitioning to an ETS through issuing fixed price allowances can be a valuable approach.

Adam Whitmore – 13th June 2018

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