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The Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM)

In this article we’ll explore what the CBAM is, why it’s been created, and what importers need to know ahead of its introduction.
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On August 17th, 2023, The European Commission adopted detailed reporting rules for its newly created Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM). The transitional phase of this new mechanism is due to start in October 2023 and will introduce greenhouse gas reporting obligations for importers of certain carbon-intensive goods. 

It is hoped that the CBAM will strengthen the effectiveness of the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and reduce carbon leakage. 

👉 In this article we’ll explore what the CBAM is, why it’s been created, and what importers need to know ahead of its introduction.

Why do we need the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism?

The European Union has been progressively intensifying policies and regulations in an effort to reduce emissions and to work towards achieving its climate change targets, which include reducing emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and achieving climate neutrality by 2050. 

A cornerstone of the EU’s strategy to achieve these ambitions is the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS). According to the European Commission, the ETS is “a key tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions cost-effectively. It’s the world’s first major carbon market and remains the biggest one.”

The ETS works by assigning a cost to carbon dioxide emissions and thereby incentivising reducing such emissions. Under the scheme, companies can buy or receive carbon allowances corresponding to their carbon emissions, which in effect makes using carbon-intensive energy sources like fossil fuels even more expensive, and makes switching to clean energy sources much more attractive. 

The EU sets a cap on how much carbon dioxide can be emitted annually, and this cap decreases with every passing year. Companies must have enough carbon allowances to cover their annual emissions. If their emissions surpass the amount covered by their allowance they will be fined. Conversely, if they release less greenhouse gases than their allowances, they can sell their excess carbon allowances. 

It’s worth noting that free allowances have been issued under the ETS to safeguard the competitiveness of certain energy-intensive industries. However, these free allowances will be gradually phased out from 2026 through to 2034. 

Since its inception in 2005, the ETS has helped to reduce emissions in energy-intensive industries such as power generation and manufacturing by around 35%. However, the success of the system is tempered by something known as ‘carbon leakage’. 

👉 To learn more about the EU ETS, why not take a look at our article, which covers everything you need to know.

What is carbon leakage?

Carbon leakage describes the situation whereby greenhouse gas emissions in one country increase as a result of emissions reductions in another country with stricter emissions regulations and policies. In essence, it’s a spillover of emissions.

The European Commission states that “Carbon leakage refers to the situation that may occur if, for reasons of costs related to climate policies, businesses were to transfer production to other countries with laxer emissions constraints. This could lead to an increase in their total emissions.

Because the ETS is a regional scheme, it is vulnerable to the varying emissions policies that exist globally and its effectiveness has been reduced by carbon leakage. Research conducted by the European Central Bank found that companies were moving their carbon-intensive activities from inside Europe to outside of the EU. 

This is why, in December 2022, a provisional agreement was reached to introduce a new mechanism called the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM). This tool places emissions tariffs on imported goods with a high risk of carbon leakage, originating from countries that are not members of the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS).

👉 Read our article on carbon emissions to learn more about the harmful effects of greenhouse gases. 

What is the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM)?

As the European Union increases its policies and regulations in an effort to combat climate change, there is a risk of ‘carbon leakage’ - whereby companies based in the EU move their carbon-intensive production or manufacturing abroad to countries with less stringent climate policies, or where EU products are replaced by imported products with higher carbon footprints. 

The Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) has been introduced to combat this situation. It’s a mechanism that “puts a fair price on the carbon emitted during the production of carbon-intensive goods that are entering the EU, and to encourage cleaner industrial production in non-EU countries.”  

The Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism was officially adopted by the European Commission on the 17th of August, 2023. The mechanism will enter into a transitional period from the 1st of October 2023, which will run until the 31st of December 2025, meaning that the CBAM will come into full effect from the 1st of January 2026.

How will the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism work?

The CBAM will apply to goods produced in countries that are not covered by the EU ETS. This includes both goods that were produced in their entirety outside of the EU and goods that underwent substantial production outside of the EU. 

The CBAM has been designed so that it gradually increases in scope. As of October 1, 2023, the transitional phase will begin. What this means is that importers of certain goods whose production is carbon intensive and susceptible to carbon leakage will have to report on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG emissions) embedded in their imports. At this stage, they will not be expected to make any financial payments. 

Goods that will fall under the transitional phase of the CBAM include:

  • Iron and steel
  • Cement 
  • Aluminium
  • Fertilisers
  • Electricity
  • Hydrogen 
  • Some downstream products that contain iron and steel - for example, screws and nails

In 2026, the transitional period will come to an end and importers will be expected to start paying adjustments. It’s possible that at this point the scope of CBAM will be expanded and that further goods will be subject to the mechanism.

The CBAM transition period

The transition period of the CBAM’s implementation begins in October 2023 and will run until December 2022. The intention of this transition period is to allow for a gradual phasing in of the CBAM, allowing businesses (both within and outside the EU) to transition to the new system.

With only GHG reporting obligations at this point, businesses will be given some flexibility when it comes to reporting on emissions embedded in their imports. During the first year of implementation, businesses will have a choice of reporting emissions in one of three ways: 

  • Full reporting in line with new EU methodology;
  • Reporting based on equivalent third-country national systems;
  • Reporting based on reference values. 

However, as of January 2023, only the EU method will be accepted. 

The European Commission has developed in-depth guidance, IT tools, training materials, and tutorials that will support importers who must calculate and report emissions when the CBAM transitional period begins. To access these training tools and documents, head over to the European Commission's website

❗Good to know: Importers are expected to collect emissions data from the fourth quarter of 2023, however, their report will not need to be submitted until the end of January 2024.

CBAM after 2026

The permanent system will come into effect from January 1st, 2026. This means that importers will need to declare the amount of goods imported to the EU in the preceding year, along with data on their embedded emissions. 

Importers will then need to hand over CBAM certificates to cover the total of any embedded emissions. The price of these CBAM certificates will be determined by the weekly average auction price of allowances under the EU ETS. Importers will have to pay the same amount per tonne of carbon dioxide as if the goods had been manufactured within the EU. 

If an importer does not surrender the correct number of corresponding CBAM certificates, they will have to pay a fine of 100 euros for each tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent. Where the goods have been imported by a person who is not a CBAM declarant, the penalty will be between 3 and 5 times higher than this, depending on the “duration, gravity, scope, intentional nature and repetition” of the non-compliance. 

💡 A note on embedded emissions: Embedded emissions are the direct greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacturing of goods, that are generated from activities the manufacturer owns or controls.

factory releasing emissions

CBAM expansion

The European Commission will perform a review of the CBAM prior to the end of its transitional phase. It will also be determined whether or not the scope of the mechanism should be expanded to include other product groups (for example organic chemicals and downstream products). A timetable is expected to be produced which will outline the inclusion of other goods already covered by the EU ETS. 

By 2030 it is hoped that all goods covered by the EU ETS will be included in the CBAM. 

The European Commission is also expected to consider whether or not it should expand emissions covered by the CBAM to include indirect emissions. 

👉 To read more about the different types of emissions involved in the manufacturing of goods, read our article which explains the different scopes of emissions.

What importers need to know

Importers of goods manufactured outside of the EU, that fall within the scope of the CBAM, should look to familiarise themselves with their obligations. They will also need to ensure that they: 

  • Register with national authorities prior to importing goods;
  • Declare the volume of imported goods and their embedded emissions annually; 
  • From January 2026, they will need to obtain the corresponding amount of CBAM certificates to cover embedded emissions; 
  • Maintain compliance documentation.

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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