Trend: Emissions trading is a free market approach to pollution control that may grow rapidly in the future as laws are passed reflecting concerns about climate change.
Charles Morand at Alternative Energy Stocks describes how emissions trading works and discusses some potential opportunities in climate exchanges in the future. Excerpts below.
Goldman Sachs took, on September 20, 2006, a 10.1% stake in a little outfit known as Climate Exchange plc (LSE:CLE) for approximately $23 million. Admittedly, by Goldman Sachs standards, that’s peanuts. Not to be outdone, Morgan Stanley unveiled a plan on Thursday October 26 to invest a whopping $3 billion in global carbon markets over the next few years....
What is carbon trading and how does it work?
Emissions trading is an innovative concept that was first used in the US to reduce emissions of the acid rain-forming gases NOx and SO2. It entails placing a cap on the total emissions of a given pollutant within an imaginary ‘bubble’ (e.g. an industrial district, a city, a state, or, in the case of carbon dioxide (CO2), the whole planet), and allowing emitters of that pollutant to sort out, among themselves, who should emit how much of that limit based on factors such as the nature of their industries, the efficiency of their operations, periodic requirements for higher commercial output, etc.
The Global Carbon Market
An interesting thing about CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) is that they are global pollutants, meaning that the end result of their presence in the atmosphere in large quantities will be the same whether they came from a Chinese power plant or an American SUV. This spells great possibilities for coordination between national regulatory bodies and the eventual setting up of a global marketplace for CO2 emissions rights.
The market for CO2 emissions currently exists in 2 forms: (a) in jurisdictions where there are legislative frameworks with formal targets in place to control GHGs, such as in the EU, carbon markets, as they are called, form the cornerstone of regulatory implementation, and (b) in areas where there are no regulations but certain market players adopt voluntary emissions targets, such as in the US, carbon trading is one tool used to meet those targets. The actual exchanges used to carry out carbon trades are known as climate exchanges, although many trades also occur in OTC markets.
In the EU, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) came into force on January 1, 2005. That year, the first one during which selected facilities were subjected enforceable regulatory limits, the value of the market reached $8.2 billion. By half-year 2006, carbon finance information provider Point Carbon reported that the ETS’ value already stood at $12.5 billion. Point Carbon estimates that the global carbon market, including both the ETS and voluntary initiatives such as the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), will be worth upwards of $27 billion by the end of 2006, up from around $12 billion in 2005 and $377 million in 2004. Now the ETS will continue to account for the bulk of this until other jurisdictions adopt mandatory GHG targets, and that’s where the fun begins.
Most folks outside of environmental or political punditry circles probably didn’t pay too much attention to the signing into law of Assembly Bill 32 in California just a few weeks back. AB 32 will impose firm caps on GHG emissions in that state, the 6th largest economy in the world, starting in 2012, and will in all likelihood rely on carbon trading to achieve its targets. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is another interesting development that has been in the works for some time. RGGI will cap GHG emissions from power producers in Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states and establish a trading system starting in 2009. Even more interesting is the growing number of commentators that now predict federally-imposed GHG emissions targets sometime in the near- to medium-term.
Seeing as the US (a) accounts for about 25% of global GHG emissions and (b) houses the most liquid financial markets in the world, we could be talking about some pretty big money here. A recent Financial Times article estimates that, should consensus be attained on a plan to fight global climate change between the largest emitting jurisdictions, expenditures could top $1,000 billion within 5 years. Seen under this light, those recent announcements by Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs look increasingly less like a means to placate environmentalists and earn a little goodwill, and increasingly more like pretty sound strategic positioning to cash in on one of the biggest business opportunities of the 21st century.
Closing Thoughts on Carbon Finance
To those who kick and scream every time you hear the words climate change or Kyoto, stop your senseless whining! I've got two pieces of news for you. First, there is far more scientific consensus on this then Fox News would have you believe, and GHGs will be regulated one day or another, whether you like it or not. Two, it’s not all downside. You need to get that poisonous idea out of your mind and look at this like Goldman is, i.e. like a big opportunity to cash in.
Is there going to be a massive transfer of wealth away from inefficient and dirty companies towards cunning investors who understand carbon trading? That remains to be seen but I and some big institutions strongly believe that to be the case. I see a great opportunity in carbon finance for those who can navigate the waters ahead.