In step with the dramatic rise in C02 emissions and other pollutants in recent years, a variety of new financial markets have emerged, offering businesses key incentives — aside from taxes and other punitive measures — to slow down overall emissions growth and, ideally, global warming itself.
A key feature of these markets is emissions trading, or cap-and-trade schemes, which allow companies to buy or sell “credits” that collectively bind all participating companies to an overall emissions limit. While markets operate for specific pollutants such as greenhouse gases and acid rain, by far the biggest emissions market is for carbon. In 2007, the trade market for C02 credits hit $60 billion worldwide — almost double the amount from 2006.
How It Works
Emissions limits and trading rules vary country by country, so each emissions-trading market operates differently. For nations that have signed the Kyoto Protocol, which holds each country to its own C02 limit, greenhouse gas emissions trading is mandatory. In the United States, which did not sign the environmental agreement, corporate participation is voluntary for emissions schemes such as the Chicago Climate Exchange. Yet a few general principles apply to each type of market.
Under a basic cap-and-trade scheme, if a company’s carbon emissions fall below a set allowance, that company can sell the difference — in the form of credits — to other companies that exceed their limits. Another fast-growing voluntary model is carbon offsets. In this global market, a set of middlemen companies, called offset firms, estimate a company’s emissions and then act as brokers by
offering opportunities to invest in carbon-reducing projects around the world.
Unlike carbon trading, offsetting isn’t yet government regulated in most countries; it’s up to buyers to verify a project’s environmental worth. In theory, for every ton of C02 emitted, a company can buy certificates attesting that the same amount of greenhouse gas was removed from the atmosphere through renewable energy projects such as tree planting.
Why It Matters Now
Industry watchers say carbon markets will continue to grow at a fast clip — especially in the United States, where Fortune 500 powerhouses such as DuPont, Ford, and IBM are voluntarily capping and trading their emissions. Even though a national cap on carbon emissions doesn’t yet exist in the United States, most consider it inevitable, and legislators are already pushing the issue in Congress.
It’s not just governments who are demanding emissions compliance — consumers want it, too. The commitment a company makes to curb its pollutant output is an increasingly public aspect of strategy. More and more employees are taking these factors into account when deciding where to work. A recent study from MonsterTRAK found that 80 percent of young professionals want their work to impact the environment in a positive way, and 92 percent prefer to work for an environmentally friendly company.
Why It Matters to You
Let’s say a company can’t afford to modify its operations to reduce C02. Purchasing carbon credits or offsets buys it time to figure out how to operate within C02 limits. For others, it can be a cost-effective tool to help lower emissions while earning public praise for the effort. Each credit a company buys on the Chicago Climate Exchange — usually for about $2 — means another
company will remove the equivalent of one metric ton of carbon.
Companies in different industries face dramatically
different costs to lower their emissions. A market-based approach allows
companies to take carbon-reducing measures that everyone can afford. “The
private sector is better at developing diversified approaches to manage the costs
and risks [of reducing emissions],” says Jesse Fahnestock, spokesman
at Swedish power company Vattenfall, which is a member of a global Combat
Climate Change coalition.
Reducing emissions and lowering energy consumption is usually good for the core business. For example, in 1997 British energy company BP committed to bring its emissions down to 10 percent below 1990 levels. After taking simple steps like tightening valves, changing light bulbs, and improving
operations efficiency, BP implemented an internal cap-and-trade scheme and met its emissions goal by the end of 2001 — nine years ahead of schedule. Using the combined C02 reduction strategy, BP reported saving about $650 million.
Then there’s the long-term investment angle: Buying into the carbon market boom now suggests significant dividends later on. Carbon credits are relatively cheap now, but their value will likely rise, giving companies another reason to participate.
As with any financial market, emissions traders are vulnerable to significant risk and volatility. The EU’s trading scheme (EU-ETS), for instance, issued so many permits between 2005 and 2007 that it flooded the market. Supply soared and carbon prices bottomed out, removing incentives for companies to trade. Enforcement of trading rules can be just as unpredictable, though Fahnestock says the EU is working to correct the problems.
Carbon offsets have their own drawbacks, which reflect a fast-growing and unregulated market. Some offset firms in the United States and abroad have been caught selling offsets for normal operations that do not actually take any additional C02 out of the atmosphere, such as pumping C02 into oil wells to force out the remaining crude. In 2008 the Climate Group, the International Emissions Trading Association, and the World Economic Forum will work to develop a Voluntary Carbon Standard to verify that offsetting projects are beyond business-as-usual and have lasting environmental value.
The lack of offset regulations has also made marketing problematic. Recently, companies have taken to declaring themselves “carbon neutral.” But until the Federal Trade Commission determines the guidelines for such terms, it’s unclear which companies actually merit the distinction. Already Vail Resorts, the organizers of the Academy Awards, and other organizations have taken heat for touting their investments in carbon offset projects that were not entirely environmentally sound.
We have a commitment to the alternative green market sector, and are a leading international broker of carbon credits. In a market now worth approximately US$144 billion, the carbon market is set to eclipse all preceding markets. Carbon is having a major impact on energy markets and prices. Its effects are impacting upon energy producers, utilities and increasing numbers of manufacturers.