Putting a price on carbon emissions emerges as a key strategy for nations and businesses to pursue

UNITED NATIONS -- The colorful Climate Summit 2014 banners have vanished from the hallways, and the talk here has turned from the threat of global warming to air strikes against Syria and the deadly Ebola virus.

But Christiana Figueres, the leader of the U.N. agency tasked with bringing nations together to work out a new global climate agreement, said now is when the real work begins.

"This is it, my friends," Figueres said. Recalling the exhaustion and disappointment of leaders after the last international push for a new treaty in Copenhagen, Denmark, failed in 2009, Figueres said luring more than 120 heads of state to the U.N. summit this week was no easy feat.

If negotiations toward a new global agreement to be signed in Paris at the end of 2015 fail, she warned, the international climate movement will be in for dark days.

"I guarantee you, if we do not succeed in 2015, it won't take five years. It will take 10 years to get everyone around the table again," Figueres said.


Part of what needs to be done over the next 15 months, officials said, is to piece together the hundreds of pledges private industry made this week on things like cutting carbon, eliminating deforestation and boosting renewables to see how they can be folded into the Paris deal.

Perhaps one of the biggest outcomes of the summit, convened by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, was the announcement by 73 national governments and more than 1,000 businesses embracing carbon pricing as a key strategy in cutting emissions. The announcement lacked a number of key specifics -- like the price businesses hope to set -- but officials hailed it as a major milestone.

"This is essential to expanding the political space in which these negotiations take place," said Rachel Kyte, special envoy for climate change at the World Bank, which spearheaded the carbon pricing declaration. "We think we're at a very special moment in time, and this is a good place to be 15 months before Paris," she said.

Linking various plans will be difficult

Speaking to a carbon pricing conference yesterday sponsored by the International Carbon Action Partnership (ICAP) and the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), Figueres and Laurence Tubiana, France's special representative for the 2015 talks, cautioned that the wide embrace of carbon pricing poses challenges for the new global deal.

That's because national governments from China to South Korea are enacting an array of mechanisms that may or may not align. Meanwhile, Figueres said, it's not yet clear "that a ton in China is the same as a ton in Japan is the same as a ton in Costa Rica is the same as a ton in Tuvalu."

Countries are expected early next year to put forward new emissions targets for the years after 2020 that will be folded into the Paris agreement. Dubbed "nationally determined contributions," the targets will essentially be what each country feels it can do.

Though there are attempts to ensure those targets will be uniform, they could be as varied as an absolute economywide emissions cut for some countries, and a reduction in carbon intensity against gross domestic product growth or a renewable energy target for others. That bottom-up approach, Figueres said, could make the linking of carbon markets more difficult.

"Will we ever get to a single global price on carbon?" she asked. "It would make things easier, but it's probably not realistic."

Tubiana agreed, saying there need no longer be a debate about whether a carbon tax or a trading system is better. "We will have both," she said.

In addition to the E.U. Emissions Trading System, South Korea this week announced it will be the first Asian country with an emissionswide scheme beginning next year. California, Switzerland, Quebec and Kazakhstan also have markets. But perhaps the most-watched development has been pilot schemes in China that are expected to transform into a nationwide system.

China is moving; the U.S. is not

Jie Tang, vice-mayor of the city of Shenzhen, said China now has the world's second-largest carbon market, operating in five cities and two provinces and amounting to 13 million tons of allowances traded and 12.8 million tons of allowances sold by auction. The central government, he noted, recently gave the green light for foreign investors to move into China's carbon market.

Harvard University economist Robert Stavins, who has been studying the role carbon markets might play in a new deal, said being able to link policies across state and national governments will be key.

"Cap and trade is clearly emerging as the instrument of choice around the world," he said. With an eye toward Paris, Stavins said, "A way of creating greater ambition in the 2015 agreement is to bring down compliance costs for parties, the various governments of the world. And a way to bring down costs is to facilitate linkage."

He argued that a well-designed deal that helps link markets by implementing registries and tracking systems, creating a common definition of key terms like a ton of CO2 equivalent and allowing for countries to claim credit for carbon-cutting efforts outside their borders could help ensure that the Paris agreement is one that puts the planet on a path to averting dangerous climate change.

Amber Rudd, the United Kingdom's parliamentary undersecretary for climate change, said her country would like to see "linked trading systems all being supported by a clear multilateral framework," adding, "The market is only as good as the global climate framework it supports."

As for the United States, which did not sign onto the World Bank's carbon pricing declaration, and where Congress has made it clear that neither a cap-and-trade system nor a carbon tax is in the cards, officials said finding a way to align new federal regulations on power plants among states will be a central challenge.

"If we follow through with a state-by-state approach to EPA regulations, it's cumbersome, it's complex for companies that operate in multiple states, and ultimately more costly," said International Emissions Trading Association CEO Dirk Forrister.

Figueres, meanwhile, reminded business leaders and other advocates of carbon pricing that while it is a key strategy, it is but a "means to an end" for achieving worldwide carbon neutrality by midcentury.

"Max 50 years from now, we have to be at the point where people are emitting not 1 ounce more than what the Earth can absorb," she said. "So how do we structure all these mechanisms to meet that end?

"Whatever decisions we make on the construction of mechanisms, the guiding star will have to be carbon neutrality 50 years from now, maximum," she said.

Twitter: @LFFriedman | Email:

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Start a free trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines