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Why a global carbon price is needed
Blog...Why a global carbon price is needed

Why a global carbon price is needed

Green News
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What is carbon pricing? How do current carbon pricing systems operate? And why is a global carbon price needed?
Green News
factory releasing pollution

While current carbon pricing systems are undoubtedly helping to address the issue of climate change, their fragmented application presents a challenge when it comes to their effectiveness. This patchwork approach lacks the global reach and uniformity needed to effectively curb greenhouse gas emissions on a worldwide scale. In this article, we explore why a unified global carbon price is critical to overcoming these challenges and steering the world towards a more effective and sustainable response to climate change.

👉 What is carbon pricing? How do current carbon pricing systems operate? And why is a global carbon price needed?

First up, what is carbon pricing?

Carbon pricing is an environmental policy tool used to control and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It works by assigning a monetary cost to the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases. In theory, this cost incentivises businesses and consumers to reduce their carbon footprint by making more environmentally friendly choices. There are two main forms of carbon pricing: carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems. Let’s explore these in more detail:

Carbon Tax System

In a carbon tax system, a specific price is assigned to carbon emissions by defining a tax rate on greenhouse gas emissions or the carbon content of fossil fuels. This approach is pretty straightforward; it provides a clear cost implication to all emitters. For example, if a government imposes a tax of £50 for every ton of CO2 emitted, businesses and individuals will be more motivated to reduce emissions to save costs.

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Cap-and-Trade System

Cap-and-trade systems, also known as emissions trading systems, work in a different way. In this system, a government sets a cap on the total level of emissions and issues permits or allowances that total up to the cap. Companies or other entities are then allowed to buy, sell, or trade these permits. This creates a market for carbon allowances and introduces a flexible mechanism for reducing emissions, as companies that reduce emissions can then sell their excess allowances to other organisations.

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The Goal of Carbon Pricing

The goal of carbon pricing is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in an economically efficient way. By assigning a cost to carbon emissions, carbon pricing internalises the environmental costs of carbon emissions, which are typically not reflected in the market prices of goods and services. 

This cost motivates companies and individuals to reduce their carbon footprint, either by investing in cleaner technologies, shifting to renewable energy sources, or improving energy efficiency. The overall objective is to steer the economy towards a low-carbon future, ultimately helping in the fight against climate change by aligning economic incentives with environmental goals. Carbon pricing is also seen as a way to encourage technological innovation, as businesses seek cost-effective ways to reduce their emissions.

Is there a global carbon pricing system?

As it stands, there is no unified global carbon pricing system. Instead, various countries and regions have implemented their own systems, tailored to their specific economic and environmental contexts. These systems vary in form, scope, and effectiveness, illustrating the diverse approaches to addressing climate change on a national or regional level. 

Let’s take a closer look at how the carbon pricing systems operate in the US, UK, and Europe:

The European Union: Emissions Trading System (ETS)

The European Union's Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) is one of the most prominent carbon pricing mechanisms in the world. Established in 2005, it operates on a cap-and-trade principle. The EU sets a cap on the total amount of certain greenhouse gases that can be emitted by organisations covered by the system. Within this cap, companies receive or purchase emission allowances, which they can trade with one another as needed. The cap is reduced over time, ensuring that total emissions in the EU fall. 

💡 The EU ETS covers around 45% of the EU's greenhouse gas emissions, targeting major emitters in sectors like power generation, aviation, and manufacturing.

In August 2023, the European Commission introduced detailed reporting rules for its recently created Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM). It’s designed to promote cleaner manufacturing processes outside the EU by introducing an emissions tariff on imported goods that carry a high risk of carbon leakage. 

👉 To learn more about the EU’s Emission Trading System and the CBAM head over to our blog. 

The United States: Regional and State-Level Systems

The United States does not have a nationwide carbon pricing system. Instead, carbon pricing initiatives are implemented at the state or regional level - there are currently thirteen states across the country (home to over 25% of the US population) that have implemented some form of carbon pricing scheme. 

For example, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a market-based cooperative effort among Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states to cap and reduce CO2 emissions from the power sector. Another notable example is California's cap-and-trade program, which covers approximately 85% of the state's greenhouse gas emissions. These state-level systems are tailored to the specific needs and policy environments of their respective regions.

The United Kingdom: UK Emissions Trading Scheme

Following its exit from the EU, the United Kingdom created its own UK Emissions Trading Scheme (UK ETS) in 2021, replacing its participation in the EU ETS. The UK ETS operates in a similar way to the EU's system, with a cap-and-trade mechanism. It covers energy-intensive industries, the energy sector, and aviation. The UK aims to align its cap with its target of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, progressively reducing the cap on emissions over time.

👉 To learn more about the UK Emissions Trading Scheme head over to our article. 

The different approaches outlined by the EU, UK, and US illustrate the fragmented nature of carbon pricing globally. Each system reflects the economic, political, and environmental priorities of the particular region, leading to variations in scope, coverage, and effectiveness. 

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What are the drawbacks of the fragmented carbon pricing systems?

The current approach to carbon pricing, characterised by its fragmentation across different countries and regions, presents several significant drawbacks and challenges. These issues not only reduce the effectiveness of carbon pricing as a tool to combat climate change but also raise concerns about economic fairness and efficiency. 

Let’s take a closer look at the main issues with the current approach to carbon pricing:

Carbon Leakage

One of the primary challenges of the fragmented carbon pricing system is carbon leakage. This occurs when companies transfer production to countries with less stringent emission constraints to avoid the costs associated with carbon pricing. This relocation of production does not reduce global emissions but simply relocates them, thereby undermining the environmental objectives of carbon pricing. For example, if the UK moves its operations to a country without carbon pricing, global emissions remain unchanged, but the UK's emissions may appear to decrease. This is especially an issue in industries where the costs of carbon pricing significantly affect competitiveness.

Lack of Global Coordination

The absence of a globally coordinated approach to carbon pricing leads to inconsistent policies across borders. Different countries and regions set varying prices on carbon, leading to a patchwork of regulations. This inconsistency can create confusion and uncertainty for multinational companies and may deter investment in cleaner technologies. A globally coordinated approach could harmonise these efforts, leading to more predictable and stable market conditions.

Competitiveness Concerns

Industries in countries with stringent carbon pricing mechanisms may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage compared to those in countries with no or lower carbon prices. This can lead to political resistance within countries that have adopted carbon pricing, as industries and consumers express concern about increased costs and potential job losses. Balancing environmental objectives with economic competitiveness is a key challenge.

Inequity Among Nations

Developing countries often argue that carbon pricing mechanisms, particularly those imposed by developed nations, do not account for their economic and developmental needs. They contend that developed countries, having historically contributed more to global emissions, should bear a greater burden of the costs. This debate raises questions about equity and justice in global climate policy.

Implementation and Enforcement Difficulties

Implementing carbon pricing systems - especially cap-and-trade schemes - can be complex and administratively burdensome. It requires robust monitoring, reporting, and verification systems to ensure compliance and effectiveness. The risk of fraud and non-compliance adds to the challenges, necessitating stringent regulatory frameworks and oversight mechanisms.

Market Volatility

In cap-and-trade systems, the price of carbon allowances can be subject to market volatility. This unpredictability can make it difficult for companies to plan long-term investments in low-carbon technologies. Price stability mechanisms, such as price floors and ceilings, can help but may also introduce distortions and reduce the overall efficiency of the system.

The fragmented nature of the current carbon pricing landscape poses significant challenges, reducing its effectiveness as a tool for global emissions reduction. These challenges highlight the need for more coordinated international efforts. Achieving a more harmonised global approach could enhance the effectiveness of carbon pricing, making it a more effective tool in the fight against climate change.
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What is a global carbon price?

The term "global carbon price" refers to a universal cost assigned to the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases across all countries. This concept involves setting a standardised price on carbon emissions on a global scale, aiming to integrate the environmental cost of these emissions into the economy. The idea is to create a consistent economic incentive for reducing carbon emissions worldwide, irrespective of national borders.

In a global carbon price system, emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases incur a cost, which could be implemented either through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. A carbon tax directly sets a price per ton of emitted CO2, while a cap-and-trade system establishes a global limit on emissions and allows entities to buy and trade allowances within this cap. The key aspect of a global carbon price is its universality – it would apply across different countries and economies, ensuring that carbon emissions are priced uniformly across the globe. 

This approach aims to address the challenges of climate change more effectively by providing a consistent, market-based incentive to reduce emissions, encouraging investment in clean technologies, and aiming to reduce the disparities in carbon pricing strategies currently observed across different regions.

Why carbon pricing is essential for the transition to a decarbonised economy

A global carbon price is increasingly seen as a crucial mechanism in the transition to a decarbonised economy. This approach is essential for several key reasons: 

Uniform Incentive for Emission Reductions

A global carbon price creates a uniform incentive for reducing emissions across all sectors and regions. By setting a consistent price on carbon, regardless of where emissions occur, it ensures that the cost of emitting greenhouse gases is factored into every economic decision, from energy production to consumer choices. This uniformity is crucial for driving a broad-based shift towards cleaner technologies and practices, as it avoids the patchwork of regional or national policies that can lead to inefficiencies and loopholes.

Addressing Carbon Leakage

A globally implemented carbon price would effectively address the issue of carbon leakage. When all countries are subject to the same carbon pricing rules, there is no advantage to relocating production to regions with more lenient emissions regulations. This not only ensures that emission reductions contribute to global climate goals but also maintains a level playing field in terms of international trade and industry competitiveness.

Promoting Clean Technology and Innovation

A global carbon price acts as a powerful signal to the market, encouraging investment in clean technologies. Knowing that the cost of carbon will be a long-term factor in economic calculations, businesses and investors are more likely to invest money into developing and adopting low-carbon solutions. This can spur innovation in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other technologies essential for a decarbonised economy.

Facilitating International Cooperation

A global carbon price requires international cooperation, fostering a sense of shared responsibility and collective action against climate change. This can help to build trust and collaboration among nations, which is essential for addressing a global issue like climate change. By working together on a common mechanism, countries can also share best practices and learn from each other's experiences.

Encouraging Global Equity

A well-designed global carbon pricing system can contribute to global equity. Integrating mechanisms to support developing countries, such as through the revenue generated from carbon pricing, can aid in their transition to a low-carbon economy. This can be particularly important for countries that lack the resources to invest in clean technologies, ensuring that the transition to a decarbonised economy is inclusive and fair.

Predictability and Stability

Finally, a global carbon price provides predictability and stability for businesses and governments, essential for long-term planning and investment decisions. Knowing the cost of carbon on a global scale allows for more accurate forecasting and reduces the risk associated with investments in low-carbon technologies and infrastructure.

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Round up

The need for a global carbon price is underscored by the inefficiencies and challenges posed by the current fragmented approach to carbon pricing. A unified global carbon price would offer a consistent incentive for emission reduction, combat carbon leakage, spur innovation in clean technology, and promote international cooperation and equity. 

As the fight against climate change intensifies, the concept of a global carbon price is gaining traction in international discussions. Despite this growing interest, the implementation of such a unified system presents considerable political and logistical challenges. Nevertheless, there is hope that the escalating urgency to address climate change will bring the establishment of a global carbon price into greater focus and feasibility. So watch this space…

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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