Why NZ’s emissions trading scheme should have an auction reserve price

File 20180917 158234 iupz1b.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
New Zealand’s emission reduction target for 2030 is to bring emissions to 30% below 2005 levels, and to be carbon neutral by 2050.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Suzi Kerr, Victoria University of Wellington

While people’s eyes often glaze over when they hear the words “emissions trading”, we all respond to the price of carbon.

Back in 2010, when the carbon price was around NZ$20 per tonne, forest nurseries in New Zealand boosted production. But when prices plunged thereafter, hundreds of thousands of tree seedlings were destroyed rather than planted, wiping out both upfront investment and new forest growth.

Emission prices have since recovered but no one knows if this will last. With consultation underway on improving the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS), the government should seriously consider a “price floor” to rebuild confidence in low-emission investment.

Read more:
A new approach to emissions trading in a post-Paris climate

How a price floor works

If we want to make a smart transition to a low-emission economy, we need to change how we value emissions so people make the investments that deliver on our targets. Implementing a reserve price at auction – or a “price floor” – is a powerful tool for managing the risk that emission prices could fall for the wrong reasons and undermine much needed low-emission investments.

In New Zealand’s ETS, participants are required to give tradable emission units (i.e. permits) to the government to cover the emissions for which they are liable. A limit on unit supply relative to demand reduces total emissions and enables the market to set the unit price.

In the future, the government will be auctioning emission units into the market. A reserve price at auction, which is simple to implement, can help avoid very low prices. If private actors are not willing to pay at least the reserve price, the government would stop selling units and the supply to the market would automatically contract.

The government’s current ETS consultation document suggests that no price floor will be needed in the future because a limit on international purchasing will be sufficient to prevent the kind of price collapse we experienced in the past. However, that assessment neglects other drivers of this risk.

When low ETS prices are a pitfall

Ideally, ETS prices would respond to signals of the long-term cost of meeting New Zealand’s decarbonisation goals and achieving global climate stabilisation. With today’s information, we generally expect ETS prices to rise over time. For example, modelling prepared for the New Zealand Productivity Commission suggests emission prices could rise to at least NZ$75 per tonne, possibly over NZ$200 per tonne, over the next three decades.

However, ETS prices could also fall because of sudden technology breakthroughs or economic downturn. Even though some low-emission investors would lose the returns they had hoped for, this could be an efficient outcome because low ETS prices would reflect true decarbonisation costs. Technological and economic uncertainty imposes a genuine risk on low-emission investments that society cannot avoid.

But there is another scenario in which ETS prices fall while decarbonisation costs remained high. This could arise because of political risk. For example, if a major emissions-intensive industrial producer was to exit the market unexpectedly and it was unclear how the government would respond, or if a political crisis was perceived to threaten the future of the ETS, then emission prices could collapse and efficient low-emission investments could be derailed.

Even when remedies are on the way, it can take time to correct perceptions of weak climate policy intentions. The New Zealand government’s slow response to the impact of low-quality international units in the ETS from 2011 to mid-2015 is a vivid example of this.

A simple and effective solution

With a price floor, an ETS auction will respond quickly and predictably to unpredictable events that lower prices. A price floor signals the direction of travel for minimum emission prices and builds confidence for low-emission investors and innovators. It also provides greater assurance to government about the minimum level of auction revenue to expect.

It is important to note that ETS participants can still trade units amongst each other at prices below the price floor. The price floor simply stops the flow of further auctioned units from the government into the market until demand recovers again and prices rise.

We have three good case studies overseas for the value of a price floor.

  1. The European Union ETS did not have a price floor for correcting unexpected oversupply and prices dropped because of the global financial crisis, other energy policies and overly generous free allocation. It now has a complex market stability reserve for this purpose, although that operates with less ease and transparency than a reserve price at auction.

  2. To counteract low EU ETS prices, the UK created its own price floor as a “top up” to the EU ETS. Although this did not add to global mitigation beyond the EU ETS cap, it did drive down coal-fired generation in the UK.

  3. California’s ETS was designed in conjunction with a large suite of emission reduction measures with complex interactions. Its reserve price at auction has ensured that a minimum and rising emission price has been maintained, despite uncertainties about the impact of other measures.

Keeping NZ on track for decarbonisation

In New Zealand, the Productivity Commission supports the concept of an auction reserve price in its final report on a transition to a low-emissions economy.

The only potential downside of a price floor is the political courage needed to set its level. It could be set at the minimum level that any credible global or local modelling suggests is consistent with New Zealand and global goals. The Climate Change Commission could provide independent advice on preferred modelling and an appropriate level. The merits of a price floor warrant cross-party support.

If the market operates in line with expectations, then the price floor has no impact on emission prices. But the price floor usefully guards against price collapse when the market does not go to plan.

The government, ETS participants and investors need to understand that international purchasing is not the only driver of downside price risk in the NZ ETS. A price floor would strengthen the incentives for major long-term investments in low-emission technologies, infrastructure and land uses in the face of uncertainty.

To reach New Zealand’s ambitious emission reduction targets for 2030 (a 30% reduction below 2005 levels) and beyond, bargain-basement emission prices need to stay a thing of the past.

This article was co-authored with Catherine Leining, a policy fellow at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.The Conversation

Suzi Kerr, Adjunct Professor, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s climate targets still out of reach after second emissions auction

Peter Christoff, University of Melbourne

The government’s Clean Energy Regulator yesterday announced the results of the second “reverse auction”. It spent A$557 million to buy emissions cuts of some 45 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Australia needs to cut its CO₂ emissions by 236 million tonnes to meet its current 2020 mitigation target of -5% below 2000 levels. The Direct Action Plan and its Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) is the Turnbull government’s major program for doing so.

The first auction, in April this year, spent A$660 million for 47.3 million tonnes.

So far, then, almost half of the A$2.55 billion allocated to the ERF has been used and some 92.8 million tonnes of emissions reduction “bought” at an average rate of almost A$13.12 per tonne of CO₂. The ERF will also form part of efforts to achieve Australia’s 2030 climate target.

The latest round of UN climate negotiations begins in Paris in three weeks’ time. These talks aim to produce tougher national greenhouse targets for the decade to 2030. Ironically, the focus on Paris is drawing attention away from the urgency of emissions cuts that need to be delivered beforehand.

In Australia, the Paris talks encourage us to accept as given our 2020 target of -5% below 2000 emissions levels, although it is among the weakest of national mitigation efforts for that period.

They encourage us to ignore the fact that – according to criteria accepted by both Labor and Coalitions governments and now met because of the rising ambitions and efforts of major emitters elsewhere – Australia’s target should have increased to -15% by 2020.

It is against this second benchmark that the Turnbull government’s efforts should now be measured.

Crunching the numbers

Assuming all the emissions reductions contracted in these auctions are delivered, and the price per tonne of carbon remains the same for future sales, then the A$1.89 billion remaining in the ERF’s coffers will buy around another 101 million tonnes of emissions.

All up then, the total emissions reduction bought by the ERF will be around 193 million tonnes of CO₂. While this is 10 million tonnes better than predicted after the first auction this outcome remains 44 million tonnes (or about 19%) short of Australia’s -5% target – and much more for the -15% goal.

But that’s not the whole story. Some 275 projects will deliver their contracted emissions reductions over different periods – a few in a year, some over three, a few over five, many over seven, and most over ten years… by 2025.

Looking at the duration of contracts, it appears that only 45% (by volume) of this mitigation effort will contribute to the 2020 target. The rest will be occur after 2020.

In other words, only 51 million tonnes of emissions will be have been cut by 2020, leaving Australia 85 million tonnes (or 36% of the total) short of its -5% target and at least treble that amount for a -15% goal.

Structural change needed

The vast bulk of the contracts agreed in both the first and second auctions have re-funded emissions reduction schemes established well before the Direct Action Plan was conceived. As was the case for the first auction, most of the projects (by volume of emissions) involve “forest protection”. These rural projects generate carbon credits by paying to halt the destruction of native vegetation (so-called “avoided deforestation”). Such reductions could be achieved at no cost through regulatory intervention.

Most people paying superficial attention to the workings of the ERF would expect public money to be spent on creating structural change, by moving our industries onto renewable energy sources, for instance, rather than on paying rent to rural landowners to avoid activities that may release emissions in the future. Useful though these projects are, one wonders whether they should constitute the core and bulk of Australia’s flagship climate policy.

If the average price of carbon rises in subsequent auctions – and if Australian energy use and emissions continue to grow – the overall shortfall will increase still further. Recent evidence suggests that emissions from stationary electricity production and energy have increased by some 3% since the removal of the carbon price last year.

It is notable that – again – no major emitters in the energy and resource sectors were among the successful bidders. In other words, the major sectors involved in producing Australia’s emissions are not engaged by this scheme.

The ERF’s reverse auction approach seems incapable of driving an economic and cultural transition to renewable energy or of encouraging substantial mitigation by major industrial emitters. It is not helping Australia work “more agilely, more innovatively”, as Prime Minister Turnbull has put it, in this case to tackle climate change.

Using this mechanism Australia won’t meet, let alone exceed, even its very weak 2020 reduction target. The ERF would need well over A$3 billion to buy all the emissions needed for that goal.

And it is equally clear that this approach is doing nothing to prepare Australia for the 2030 target it is taking to Paris, of -26 to -28% below 2005 levels. Nor for the much more ambitious targets required to avert dangerous climate change.

The Conversation

Peter Christoff, Associate Professor, School of Geography, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.