Trans-Tasman Emissions Trading Scheme Challenge: Part Two

With the passage of the Australian “Clean Energy Future” legislation, Simon Johnson (aka Mr February) makes another trans-tasman emissions trading scheme comparison.

Yesterday the Australian Parliament adopted legislation for its greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme. It’s time, therefore, for another post on the theme of the “Trans-Tasman Emissions Trading Scheme test series”, looking at the key differences between the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme and the Australian Emissions Trading Scheme. The number one key difference between the two emissions trading schemes is in how clearly each scheme sets the carbon price.

Unequivocal carbon price vs volatile carbon price.

Unlike the NZ ETS, the Australian ETS will set an absolutely clear and unequivocal price on greenhouse gas emissions. That price will be $AU23 per tonne from 1 July 2012, then $AU24.15 in 2013-14 and $AU25.40 2014-15 (Securing a Clean Energy Future, The Australian Government’s Climate Change Plan, p 26). From 1 July 2015, the carbon price will float within and upper and lower ceiling with the Government setting an overall ‘Cap’ or limit on GHGs (Securing a Clean Energy Future), p 27.

The price for “New Zealand Units” under the NZ ETS is being set at a discount to the price of international Kyoto units in the volatile international carbon. So the NZ price is …well…it’s yeah whatever. As in this chart for 2010. Did you note that the Australian minimum carbon price of 23.00 Australian Dollars converts to 29.50 New Zealand Dollars? A price of 29.50 NZ dollars is off the scale of this chart!

NZU & CER price
NZU & CER price: Westpac

And as in this updated chart for September, showing the fall in the international price driven by the Euro-Zone debt crisis is further pushing the NZ unit price down.

Sept Oct NZU prices
Sept Oct NZU prices: Carbon Market Solutions

This direct importing of the international price into the NZ unit price is because of two intrinsic design features of the NZ ETS. The NZ ETS has no cap on domestic GHG emissions and no cap on free allocation of units to emitters. The NZ ETS is highly linked to international markets. It allows almost all international Kyoto units to be imported and surrendered by emitters. So an emitter would say to a seller of NZ units “Why should I buy your NZ units instead of international units, which I could sell in a much wider market, unless the NZ units are at a discount?”

Of course, the Australians, influenced by Ross Garnaut and Bob Brown of the Green Party, are not having a bar of this price volatility. In terms of the economics literature, this is absolutely the right way to go.

A clear and consistent carbon price out for several years will clearly signal to emitters which emission reduction technologies to adopt — ones that will break even at the set carbon price! The same goes for developers of windfarms and producers of biofuels. A clear carbon price into the future will give investors confidence that they will not lose their shirts putting capital into windfarms and biofuel plants. Carbon price volatility, like in New Zealand, just makes investment in either mitigation or substitution of fossil fuels a bad bet.

So why on earth would a big industrial emitter want to have an emission trading scheme like New Zealand’s where they have an unpredictable and volatile liability to pay a variable carbon price instead of an unequivocal and consistent-over-time carbon price as set out in Australia’s scheme?

The only answer I can give is that if like Rio Tinto NZ Alcan Limited, you are given more emissions units than you need for your actual emissions then it just doesn’t matter what the price is.

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