How high does carbon need to be? Somewhere from RM83 to RM112,000

The price required depends on the goal policymakers want to hit, and what other rules and regulations they impose, say scientists

London • The idea that carbon markets can help rein in greenhouse gas emissions got fresh momentum this week from a panel of scientists convened by the United Nations (UN).

But whether the idea gains more political currency this time depends on the price that policymakers set for emitting Earth-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The UN panel set out a number of scenarios, suggesting that markets alone won’t solve the problem.

“A complementary mix of stringent policies is required,” scientists said in the report.

The market has the potential to shave 10 billion tonnes off global emissions by 2030, a 25% reduction from current levels. Another dividend: Money collected from carbon pricing could be used to soften the blow of higher energy prices.

The panel stopped short of recommending a price. Instead, it said the price required depends on the goal policymakers want to hit and what other rules and regulations they impose. The idea is that a market together with regulations and taxes will provide both incentive and penalties for polluters to roll back their emissions.

Carbon prices would probably need to be 20 times higher than current levels in Europe to rein in fossil fuel emissions if that was the main policy mechanism in place, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in its report. After assessing peer-reviewed academic research, it concluded:

• Prices need to average between US$140 (RM582.40) to US$590 a tonne from 2030 to 2100 to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5ºC above levels seen before the industrial revolution.

• For a less ambitious target of keeping temperatures from rising 2ºC, average carbon prices could average from US$20 to US$150 over the same period.

• For the more ambitious limit, prices may need to jump above US$1,000 sometime before 2030 and perhaps reach as much as US$27,000 by the end of the century.

Carbon in Europe rose above €20 (RM96) a tonne for the first time in a decade in August, although it has remained well below levels the UN envisioned for much of the life of the continent’s Emissions Trading System, which started in 2005.

Advocates of emissions trading systems say higher carbon prices would steer consumers away from the dirty technology they are used to, said Glen Peters, senior researcher at the Centre for International Climate and Environment Research in Oslo.

He expects high carbon prices, which are a reasonable policy, probably will fall victim to short-term fixes and political apathy about climate change. Five years ago, Australia backed out of a carbon pricing system that promised effective tax cuts.

“Right wing parties should love carbon taxes, but they don’t because climate is a left-wing issue,” Peters said. “Climate leadership is gone.”

The IPCC report is another attempt to resuscitate debate about carbon markets after US President Donald Trump vowed to pull the US out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The UN scientists see a “double dividend” from carbon trading as it both encourages restraint on emissions and raises money that can be spent on projects that cut pollution or help the poor.

“The design of carbon pricing policy implies a balance between incentivising low-carbon behaviour and mitigating the adverse distributional consequences of higher energy prices,” the report said.

Substituting a levy on carbon for payroll taxes can “potentially decrease labour costs without affecting salaries”, reducing economic damage caused by climate policies, the report said.

Last month in Bangkok, envoys to the UN climate envoys produced a draft negotiating text outlining options for new global carbon markets under the Paris deal. If the measures get broader backing at the end of this year, countries will be able to voluntarily trade emission-reduction credits bilaterally, or via a new international programme, known as the Sustainable Development Mechanism.

“I hope that the governments, scientists all come together to find a solution to our climate challenge,” said Fatih Birol, ED of the International Energy Agency.

The scientists’ report and climate talks are seeking an immediate decline in emissions, yet global emissions are set to rise again this year to a record, Birol said on Tuesday in an interview at the Oil & Money conference in London.

“There’s a clash — a gap — between what the scientists and governments target and what’s happening in the real markets. This is my main worry,” he said.

The report ramps up the pressure on UN envoys to agree to the rules this December for the international carbon markets, which will cut the cost of climate protection and make the 1.5ºC goal “more feasible”, said Dirk Forrister, president of the International Emissions Trading Association.

Burying carbon emissions could be critical to stave off catastrophic climate change, but don’t count on politicians making it happen because carbon prices need to at least triple to US$75 a tonne, Royal Dutch Shell plc CEO Ben van Beurden said on Tuesday.

“The carbon price that we would be looking at with today’s state of technology and commercialisation and everything else, would probably be out of reach from a political perspective,” Van Beurden said. — Bloomberg