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Global carbon pricing versus emissions trading systems: a head-to-head comparison

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By Dorel Iosif

· 6 min read

Carbon pricing mechanisms, including global carbon pricing (GCP) and emissions trading systems (ETS), are essential tools for incentivizing emissions reductions and combating climate change. Both approaches aim to internalize the social costs of carbon emissions and drive the transition to a low-carbon economy. However, they differ in their design, implementation, and potential impacts. 

Achieving a global uniform price on carbon is a complex endeavour that involves navigating economic, political, and environmental challenges.

This article explores the strengths, weaknesses, and potential implications of GCP versus ETS.

1. Global Carbon Pricing - GCP

1.1 Concept and implementation

Our Definition: GCP refers to a coordinated approach to pricing carbon emissions on a worldwide scale, through the implementation of a uniform carbon price.

Implementation: GCP requires international cooperation and agreement among countries to establish a harmonised carbon price. This can be achieved through multilateral agreements, such as the Paris Agreement, or coordinated action by regional blocs.

Flexibility: GCP offers flexibility in terms of policy design and implementation, allowing countries to tailor carbon pricing mechanisms to their specific circumstances and preferences.

Equity Considerations: GCP may raise concerns about equity and fairness, particularly for developing countries with limited capacity to mitigate emissions. Mechanisms such as revenue recycling or climate finance can address these concerns by supporting vulnerable populations and promoting equitable outcomes.

Market Distortions: Different sectors (e.g., agriculture, transportation, heavy industry) have distinct carbon footprints. A uniform price might disproportionately affect certain industries.

Enforcement: Monitoring and enforcing compliance with a global carbon price would require robust mechanisms.

1.2 Potential benefits

Coordinated Action: GCP facilitates coordinated action on climate change by aligning incentives and providing a level playing field for businesses and industries worldwide.

Efficiency: A uniform carbon price across countries can promote cost-effective emissions reductions and drive innovation in clean technologies.

Revenue Generation: GCP has the potential to generate significant revenue, which can be used to finance climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, support vulnerable communities, and stimulate economic development.

1.3 Challenges and limitations

Political Barriers: Achieving consensus on GCP is challenging due to divergent interests and priorities among countries. Negotiating a harmonised carbon price that satisfies all parties may be difficult.

Enforcement and Compliance: Ensuring compliance with GCP agreements requires robust monitoring, reporting, and verification mechanisms. Lack of enforcement mechanisms may undermine the effectiveness of GCP.

Distributional Impacts: GCP may have distributional impacts, affecting industries and communities differently. Careful consideration of equity and social justice concerns is necessary to mitigate adverse effects.

2. Emissions Trading Systems (ETS)

2.1 Concept and implementation

Definition: Emissions trading systems (ETS), also known as cap-and-trade systems, establish a cap on total emissions and allocate emission allowances to regulated entities. These allowances can be bought, sold, or traded in a market, allowing companies to meet their emissions targets cost-effectively.

Implementation: ETS are typically implemented at the national or regional level, although linkages between different ETS can create a broader carbon market. Examples include the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) and the California Cap-and-Trade Program.

Market Mechanisms: ETS rely on market mechanisms to determine the price of carbon, with the supply and demand for emission allowances driving price fluctuations. This creates a financial incentive for companies to reduce emissions and invest in clean technologies.

Compliance Flexibility: ETS offer flexibility for regulated entities to comply with emissions targets by allowing them to trade emission allowances. This flexibility encourages cost-effective emissions reductions and facilitates innovation.

2.2 Potential benefits

Cost-effectiveness: ETS promote cost-effective emissions reductions by allowing companies to find the least expensive ways to meet their obligations, whether through reducing emissions or purchasing allowances.

Market Efficiency: ETS harness market forces to allocate emission allowances efficiently, ensuring that emissions reductions occur where they are most economically viable.

Environmental Integrity: ETS establish a cap on total emissions, ensuring that overall emissions remain within predetermined limits. This helps to maintain environmental integrity and achieve emission reduction targets.

2.3 Challenges and limitations

Complexity: ETS can be complex to design, implement, and administer, requiring robust monitoring, reporting, and verification systems. Administrative costs and regulatory complexity may pose challenges for policymakers.

Price Volatility: ETS are susceptible to price volatility, with fluctuating carbon prices affecting market stability and the predictability of investments in low-carbon technologies.

Concerns about Leakage: ETS may lead to carbon leakage, where emissions-intensive industries relocate to jurisdictions with weaker emission regulations, undermining the effectiveness of the system.

3. Comparative analysis

3.1 Effectiveness

GCP: Offers a coordinated approach to pricing carbon emissions on a global scale, potentially achieving broader emissions reductions and facilitating international cooperation.

ETS: Provides flexibility and cost-effectiveness for regulated entities, allowing them to trade emission allowances and find the least expensive pathways to compliance.

3.2 Equity and fairness

GCP: Raises concerns about equity and fairness, particularly for developing countries with limited capacity to mitigate emissions. Mechanisms such as revenue recycling or climate finance can address these concerns.

ETS: May lead to unequal distributional impacts among industries and communities, with vulnerable populations bearing the brunt of environmental harms.

3.3 Complexity and implementation challenges

GCP: Requires international cooperation and consensus-building, which may be challenging due to divergent interests and priorities among countries.

ETS: Can be complex to design, implement, and administer, requiring robust monitoring, reporting, and verification systems.

Both GCP and ETS are essential policy tools for incentivising emissions reductions and driving the transition to a low-carbon economy. While GCP offers the potential for coordinated action on a global scale, ETS provide flexibility and cost-effectiveness for regulated entities. The choice between these approaches depends on various factors, including political feasibility, administrative capacity, and equity considerations. 

Achieving a global uniform carbon price requires collaboration, compromise, and innovative solutions. As challenging as it may be, GCP remains a critical step in addressing climate change. 

Smaller groups of countries could form “carbon clubs” with shared carbon pricing policies, gradually expanding to a global scale. Additionally, countries could start by aligning their carbon prices within regional blocs and then work toward global convergence.

Ultimately, a combination of global cooperation, innovative policy design, and robust implementation mechanisms is necessary to address the urgent challenge of climate change and achieve net-zero emissions.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Dr Dorel Iosif is the Chief Executive of LAVAUX and a Board Director with Cognisium. He is a strategist and a global energy markets expert and resides in Australia.

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