Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Economic collapse and corporate foresight

Russia has cleared the way to begin selling carbon credits, exposing a slightly troubling issue for the carbon allowance market: the issue of overhang.

Anyone who invested in a newly listed tech stock during the dot-com bubble probably remembers overhang, or the excess shares that were not traded in the market. As the tech bubble deflated, much of the overhang that was held by company founders and venture capitalists came flooding into the market, adding to the downward spiral.

Russia is currently well below its emissions limits under Kyoto, thanks to its economic collapse in the 1990s which forced the closure of uneconomic pollution-belching factories. Thus, it has carbon credits galore. One investment bank has estimated this 'overhang' could total $10 billion. The Russian company Gazprom, which is the world's largest natural gas supplier, has hit on the ingenious idea of selling carbon credits bundled with its energy, thus providing carbon-neutral gas. The company has said it has no intention of flooding Europe with cheap carbon allowances, but it might change its tune if emissions permits became so expensive that its customers switched to wind power.

So what does this have to do with the United States? Du Pont, Entergy and other companies in carbon-intensive industries have accumulated carbon offsets and credits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through foresight (rather than economic crisis). Du Pont, for example, committed itself more than a decade ago to cutting its emissions 65 percent below the 1990 level by 2010. They've probably been quite careful to have to reductions certified and verified, giving them a potential windfall if legislation recognizes these cuts.
Could this 'overhang' reduce the effectiveness of a cap-and-trade system aimed at cutting greenhouse gases? In theory, it shouldn't. But it might distort pricing of carbon allowances, easing the pain of reducing greenhouse gas emissions -- and that pain is precisely what is needed to change behavior.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bipartisan pressure on Washington

A Republican governor and Democrat governor are teaming up to press Congress to pass the Lieberman/Warner bill, which legislates cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental Defense enlisted Tim Pawlenty, the Republican governor from Minnesota (the state's two senators both signed on a sponsors of the bill), and Arizona's Democrat governor, Janet Napolitano, for a series of radio ads. It's hard to guess what sort of impact this might have, but it shows the stakes and fractured alliances.

Both Arizona and Minnesota have been in the lead with climate change legislation, and both realize regional solutions are merely placeholders -- just temporary measures while everyone waits for Washington to get involved.

Apparently, the ads focus on the cost to the U.S. economy of not acting now on climate change. They push the point that the United States will lag further behind Europe if Washington can't come up with some sort of law this year to cut emissions.

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush convenes his climate talks with the world's big polluters in Hawaii on Wednesday. He'll try to push the idea of using technology to beat carbon, pushing to open markets for U.S. science to cut emissions in India and China. The longer he waits, the more he risks that those "technology transfers" he craves will clear the way not for U.S. gadgetry, but European expertise.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Chaos isn't good for business

It seems loony greens and their tree-hugging friends aren't keeping executives up at night. Rather, the bogeymen spooking business leaders turns out to be the politicians who promote supposedly 'business-friendly' voluntary approaches to cutting greenhouse gases.

Why? Top execs want clarity on climate change policy and prefer a U.N.-brokered system to the voluntary approach championed by the White House and some leaders in the Republican Party, according to a study. Investors always prefer a nasty known to unknown that offers a glimmer of hope. An established system, even one involving a carbon tax or deep cuts to emissions would clear the way for businesses to adjust their forecasts and plan accordingly, according to the study.

Canadian political leaders are getting the same message. Policy chaos isn't good for business, apparently. The business leaders have no problem with the noble goals of various greenhouse gas policies being developing in Canada, they just wish the country had one national approach rather than a half dozen local ones. Will a uniform emissions policy drive business out of Canada? Just the opposite, apparently.

"This is affecting investment plans," said Tom d'Aquino of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. "How can you make investment decisions on a 15 or 20 or 25-year horizon if you are living in a country that is totally fragmented on environmental policy? The danger is that of some people saying if Canada can't get it together, maybe we should go somewhere else. People have actually said that to me."

But why stop at national borders? If a national plan is superior to local ones, wouldn't an international policy trump local ones? The Washington Post (registration required) notes the similarity between the European Union plan unveiled last week and Lieberman-Warner bill on the floor of the Senate. The largest businesses in the United States, those with the biggest lobbying clout, already operate under greenhouse gas regulations in Europe. It's hardly a surprise many of these companies are actively pressing for Washington to get on board and bring some conformity to global policy.

Cue President George W. Bush in Monday's State of the Union address:

And let us complete an international agreement that has the potential to slow, stop and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases. This agreement will be effective only if it includes commitments by every major economy and gives none a free ride.

Bush, with his roots in the corporate wing of the Republican Party, is playing catch up to his supposed base. He may try to pitch a voluntary system again this week in Hawaii when he convenes a meeting on climate change. He'll get few takers.

Manipulating the system

The Federal Trade Commission should be aggressive in making sure consumers understand carbon offsets and take a harder look at renewable energy certificates, or RECS, according to a letter signed by nine state attorneys general.

The AGs cite the potential "to manipulate the system" and make the usual plea that feds make sure offsets aren't being double sold - in other words, make sure that if a project cuts emissions by 1 million tonnes, the offsets sold from that project don't total more than 1 million tonnes. Critics cite double selling as a major drawback of retail offsets programs.

They also want clarity on RECs:

The states also demanded that the Federal Trade Commission consider whether renewable energy certificates-proof that energy was generated by a renewable source-should count as a valid offset. The certificates may not qualify as offsets because renewable energy does not always displace traditional energy sources.

The United States requires power companies increase the portion of their output from renewable energy. Many would argue this is a legal mandate, therefore it doesn't meet the standard for 'additionality' and wouldn't qualify as an offset. The FTC could put an end to RECs as an offset, but this won't dent the booming renewable energy business -- although it might cut into offset brokers bottom line. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Next ice age on hold

A group of scientists argue in the journal Science that carbon credits should not be sold for ocean iron fertilization. Several businesses and research centers are pursuing the technique, known as OIF, which has been called the greatest source of cheap carbon capture and sequestration.

In a nutshell, it works like this: Seed the vast lifeless stretches of ocean with iron and plankton will blossom. They'll capture carbon from the atmosphere and when they die they'll take some of that carbon with them to the ocean depths. It's been compared to tree-planting projects, without the threat of fires which release trapped carbon.

Promoters of the strategy like to cite oceanographer John Martin, who said at the famed Woods Hold Oceanographic Institute: "Give me a half a tanker of iron and I will give you another ice age." Apparently he said it with a mock Dr. Strangelove accent, but no matter. Combine that quote with Kyoto Protocol carbon credits and you've got yourself a business model.

The scientists' letter really only affects the funding of the current research, and that mostly spells bad news for Planktos, a penny stock company that's already on shaky ground, according to its financial reports. Other companies include Climos and Sea Green Ventures, which seems to be based in Florida.

Planktos has been outfitting a research vessel and plans to begin conducting larger scale experiments soon. The other companies and government-backed research centers are also preparing research, but it seems most of results are at least a year away.

The scientists aren't trying to stop the research, just slow one avenue of funding, which is the selling of carbon credits. Sensibly, they simply point out that carbon credits shouldn't be sold until its clear the carbon captured is actually retained."However, the efficiency with which OIF captures carbon from the atmosphere and retains it in the deep ocean, is still uncertain and unintended ecological impacts are not yet fully understood."

It remains a promising technology. This is simply a warning to verifiers to steer clear of Planktos, which has been criticized for loose standards and its rush to sell voluntary carbon offsets, which are targeted at consumers and suffer from flimsy standards.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pessimists were wrong. It's worse.

"The climate crisis is significantly worse and unfolding more rapidly than those on the pessimistic side of the IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] projections had warned us."

Former Vice President and oracle of inconvenient truths, Al Gore, says climate change is accelerating but adds that all candidates for U.S. president will back policies to address the issue. He argues that a global carbon trading system is critical, which seems fairly obvious when dealing with a global problem.

Gore's influence may be questionable, although his comments about Republicans, even evangelicals, could be read as a sign he's angling for a say regardless of who wins.

At the moment it would seem the U.S. would be a late arrival to climate change party and would have to dance to the music already playing. The nice advantage of always being the 800-pound gorilla is that even if you're last on the dance floor, you call the tune.

The Financial Times points to a way in which the U.S. could quickly force the world to adopt a global greenhouse gas policy: a carbon tax on imports. Of course this would require the U.S. to have its own tax first, but that day may be approaching, once the election is out of the way. The EU also suggested taxing the carbon content of imports in the climate proposals unveiled this week. It's a long way off and the FT lists the lengthy number of hurdles, but the first one -- raising the issue and debating it -- seems to have been cleared.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The 10-step low-carb diet

The European Union president outlined to the European Parliament Wednesday the bloc's plan to cut emissions 20 percent by 2020. While not nearly ambitious enough to satisfy everyone in the green lobby (emission credits won't be fully auctioned until 2020 for some industries, for example), the outline seemed to win general praise.

What will the United States do in response? Several bills are working their way through Congress, but the momentum will shift to the presidential candidates this summer. Should one of those candidates be Hillary Clinton, than the Center for American Progress would probably be a good place to look for clues to her policy.

The center has been described as Hillary's think tank. The organization is led by former Clinton White House chief of staff, John Podesta. He testified before the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming on Wednesday and outlined an energy policy that he insisted the next president must put at the center of his ("or her") economic policy.

He outlines 10 steps to move the country from a high-carbon economy to a low-carbon one. He makes the usual noises about the number of jobs that would be created by adopting and developing new technologies.

He fully embraces cap-and-trade, noting that it will happen on a regional level if Washington doesn't act. But he urges Congress to get moving, and emphasizes that emission credit should be auctioned, not freely given. The revenue generated by those auctions should be used to offset the impact on the poor, with 10 percent going to carbon-intensive industries to help them with the cost.

He also argues for steps to end suburban sprawl, increase fuel efficiency of cars, improve the efficiency of the electricity grid, using the buying power of the federal government to promote renewable fuel and helping to fund research into carbon capture technology.

Maybe most striking is his tone. These aren't some policy goals for incremental change.
The urgency of this issue demands a president willing to make the low-carbon energy challenge a top priority in the White House—a centerpiece not only of his or her energy policy but also of his or her economic program—to produce broad-based growth and sustain American economic leadership in the 21st century. This task is so encompassing it will demand that the incoming president in 2009 reorganize the mission and responsibility of all relevant government agencies—economic, national security, and environmental.

He ends by creating a vision of the United States leading the rest of the world in the fight against climate change. After eight years of denial, it's slightly hard to comprehend the potential for changes in 2009.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"It’s not too early to prepare for the emergence of markets"

Minnesota's governor is proposing a planning authority to explore a state-wide carbon market. The state is already a member of the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord, a five-state project based around the Great Lakes, so it's a bit unclear what the governor is seeking. The state has a goal of cutting emissions 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050.

“While it’s still too early to know exactly how the carbon credit market will develop, it’s not too early to prepare for the emergence of markets,” Governor Pawlenty said.

The authority seems to be following a similar path as San Francisco. The mayor proposed a carbon offset program that limits the market to the city. On a political level it makes great sense, but San Francisco isn't a very big place with aging gritty steel mills that will be easy to clean up and create credits. This was the whole point of the U.N.'s Clean Development Mechanism - if you need carbon credits, it's easier and cheaper to generate them in the poorer, less developed parts of the world.

Monday, January 21, 2008

"It will not be easy to achieve"

Michigan Democrat John Dingell, the chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has outlined his proposal to cut greenhouse gases. Dingell has been scoring higher and higher in recent years in the League of Conservation Voters' eco-friendly rankings. This plan should certainly help. He informs us that:
The earth is getting warmer and human activities are a large part of the cause. We need to act in order to prevent a serious problem. The world’s best scientists agree we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60-80 percent by 2050 in order to limit the effects of global warming and this legislation will put us on track to do just that.

This is a massive undertaking, and it will not be easy to achieve, but we simply must accomplish this goal; our future and our children’s futures depend on it.

Not easy to achieve? That's his inner evil doctor letting you know 'This might hurt a little.' Nothing's easy in America when you propose getting rid of the mortgage tax deduction on large homes and float the idea of 50 cent per gallon tax.

He's hit on a great point. Large homes, built far from centers of employment and public transit, contribute to sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions. But in case he's missed it, these people are already losing homes at a record rate. The L.A. Times was reporting two years ago, before the word 'subprime' crashed onto the front page, about the toll surging gas prices were having on the McMansion crowd who lived two-hours from the city center and were drowning debts. Congress will have about as much luck stripping their deduction for mortgage interest as they will in taking their guns.

But that's a small point. Dingell's got a plan. A carbon tax of $50 per ton of carbon puts it in the range recommended by former World Bank economist Nicolas Stern, who authored a report on climate change for the UK Treasury. Stern put the social cost of climate change at $85 dollars per ton but in this interview, he seems to say $40 per ton makes important technologies such as sequestration more viable. (There seems to be a lot of confusion over whether tonne or ton is being used and whether the price is for a ton/tonne of carbon or ton/tonne of CO2. Dingell's plan is per ton for carbon).

Dingell's plan also endorses the use of "certified" carbon offsets. The offsets are moving closer to becoming mainstream financial assets, and much now rides on who does the certifying and making those standards transparent, consistent and scandal free.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

"It's incumbent upon states to take steps to combat rising carbon dioxide levels"

New Jersey's governor signed into law a bill that requires a 10 percent cut from current levels in power plant emissions by 2019. The law authorizes the state to assign or auction what essentially amount to pollution permits, establishing a cap-and-trade market. If power plants can't meet their required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, they must buy credits from competing plants that made extra cuts.

The key is how many permits are created and how the permits are distributed. In Europe, too many credits under its previous regime were assigned and prices for carbon collapsed. Also critical - will permits be freely given or auctioned? Critics argue freely distributing permits (as has been proposed) steals clean air from tax payers. New Jersey's effort is part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which is launching a carbon market among 10 East Coast states in 2009. New York plans to auction all of its permits, which should create encourage steeper cuts in emissions by placing a higher price on greenhouse gases.

It's now up to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to decide what to do with those valuable permits. Expect intense pressure from utilities which want to see them handed over.

Friday, January 18, 2008

“We don’t want carbon offsets to become the 21st century version of snake oil and patent medicine.”

Done correctly, carbon offsetting has the potential to cut emissions, reward innovation and send price signals that allocate capital to the most cost-effective projects. It's a great concept, but offsets have no intrinsic value without proper monitoring and verification.

The Fair Trade Commission recently began a series of workshops that put the spotlight on the booming trade in voluntary offsets. They covered many of the problems exposed in a great Businessweek article early last year on offset projects, which boils down to lack of verification and transparency.

It now seems Congress, or at least two Republicans, have taken notice and they requested the Congressional investigative arm, the General Accountability Office, bring sanity to the situation.

“Carbon offsets provide a potentially valuable way for individuals to make direct, personal commitments to environmental quality, but without transparency and reliable evidence of honesty, they seem poised to betray their purchases’ good intentions ... We don’t want carbon offsets to become the 21st century version of snake oil and patent medicine.”

In some cases, it might be too late. Ask Saab.

The automaker launched a curiously named Grrrrrreen campaign (why six Rs?). Australian consumer protections regulators are taking legal action after finding that "its claims of planting 17 native trees would not provide a carbon dioxide offset for any period other than a single year’s operation of any motor vehicle in the Saab range."

It's not just the pushers offering suspiciously sourced offsets that are causing trouble, but it's fair to argue offsets are a victim of their success and imitation. At the moment, it's often just too cheap to buy offsets, thereby having no impact on consumer behaviour. If offsets don't increase the cost of owning and driving a Saab enough to make a Prius a comparable alternative, the offsets probably aren't properly valued.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"It's like the wild west"

This lengthy piece in CFO Magazine makes a solid case for buying carbon credits now, on the cheap, in anticipation of rising prices for carbon credits in a few years when regulation looms. It sounds like most of the executives they spoke with see plenty of room for a voluntary market once the caps are in place and expect to use their purchased credits to meet required cuts.

But here's the rub: Everyone seems to agree the available credits vary wildly in quality and obviously doubt many of them will qualify under the eventual cap-and-trade. That should be obvious to anyone who's done much research into the current batch of sellers of carbon credits and the prices they charge.

This demand in cross-border CO2 projects has led to problems. Stories have already appeared in The Financial Times and elsewhere about manufacturers in India purposely building factories with excessive greenhouse-gas emissions so they can sell the reduction credits. In addition, several reports have documented cases in which sellers of credits have miscalculated carbon baselines, thus bumping up CO2 reductions. "You've got guys saying, 'Hey, we'll get you an offset if you give us some money,'" says Clean Air Watch's O'Donnell. "It's like the Wild West."

The article and the executives and specialists quoted are particularly tough on reforesting projects - don't tell the Super Bowl organizers.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The cost of cap-and-trade

Since a cap-and-trade system seems increasingly likely in the United States, it's worth asking what the impact might be.

And since you asked, the the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Information Agency have an answer. It's not nearly as dire as critics want everyone to believe, and for good reason.

The good news: "Impacts on economic growth are modest. By 2030, cumulative GDP losses range from -0.02 to -0.07 percent across the different scenarios analyzed by EIA and EPA."

The bad news: "Total greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 fall from 9.1 to 9.7 billion metric tons CO2 in the “business-as-usual” case to 6.9 to 7.3 billion metric tons under S.1766 -- a 24 to 26 percent decrease."

Why is that bad news? That estimated cut in greenhouse gas emissions isn't much of a cut compared to current levels of emissions, which totalled 7.1 billion metric tons in 2006. Compare that to Britain, which is debating an 80 percent cut in emissions by 2050.

But I suppose it's a start.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Lawmaker promises cap-and-trade bill

Powerful Democratic lawmaker, John Dingell, promises at the Detroit Auto Show that he will introduce a bill to launch a cap-and-trade approach to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to Reuters. This is one of several efforts underway and it's unclear whether anything will pass in an election year, but that's not really the point. Dingell has made his reputation as a reliable battler ready to take on the environmentalists. His change of heart is the surest signal that United States is close to adopting a European-style emissions trading system. Wall Street wants this, the green lobby wants it, several states in the Northeast are already committed to it. Even big business wants it. The United States effectively demonstrated how a cap-and-trade might work with the success of a similar system to control sulphur emissions that contribute to acid rain. Dingell may not want it, but he wants to be in control of the debate and like the administration, he knows the country will join the global effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This is about having a hand in the way it's done.