This post originally appeared on ipolitics.ca.
On Apr. 3, the Ontario government will announce the results of its first ever auction of pollution permits under its new cap-and-trade program aimed at cutting the emissions that contribute to global warming. As historic and newsworthy as the event may be, it would be wrong to read too much into the results as a measure of the success of the overall environmental program.
Ontario’s cap-and-trade program, launched on Jan. 1, requires emitters such as power plants to surrender a “carbon allowance” for every ton of pollution they produce. The ‘cap’, or limit on emissions, will be reduced over time, ensuring continuing reductions of emissions. The ‘trade’ — allowing emitters to sell excess allowances on the market — provides emitters with a flexible, cost-effective path to going green.
The Ontario government will auction many of these carbon allowances, as they did this month, and the new climate law requires all proceeds to be reinvested in public transit, green technologies and other environmental endeavors that reduce carbon pollution.
The actual auction was held Mar. 22, and offered for sale a total of 28 million allowances at about $17 each. Theoretically, that means the final result announced in April could be hundreds of millions of dollars raised by the province for investments in green projects.
History suggests the actual sum could be considerably less.
Results from recent California and Quebec auctions, which could influence Ontario’s results, have varied widely; those auctions sold 88 per cent and then 18 per cent of available allowances in the two most recent auctions.
There’s a number of reasons why cap-and-trade programs can get off to a relatively slow start.
Relatively soft auction results in the early stages of a cap-and-trade program may simply indicate that the system is working exactly as it was designed.
In the initial stages, for instance, many polluters can find relatively simple ways to cut their emissions enough to meet their cap for the year and thereby avoid having to buy allowances. Or, since they have a few years before they are required to turn in the required allowances, they could simply wait to purchase them.
Many allowances also will be provided to businesses for free — especially those energy-intensive businesses that have competitors in other jurisdictions not subject to similar climate regulations.
Relatively soft auction results in the early stages of a cap-and-trade program may simply indicate that the system is working exactly as it was designed — by allowing industries to make a gradual transition to lower emissions without causing undue economic upheaval or job losses.
Cap-and-trade programs already are showing that economic prosperity and ambitious climate action can go hand in hand. Ontario’s system is modeled after the joint program between Quebec and California, which have both seen carbon pollution decline even as their economies thrived in their first four years of cap-and-trade. In fact, in the first four years of California’s program, emissions under the cap declined while jobs were added faster than the national average — and California’s GDP grew to make the state the fifth largest economy in the world.
The Ontario scheme is designed to achieve similar environmental and economic results by easing consumers, businesses and industries gradually into the new cap-and-trade regime which will put the province on track to a low-carbon economy.
Ontario was able to develop and implement a rigorous but flexible emission-reduction program in less than half the time it took California and Quebec, an example of how climate giants can spur faster and more ambitious action by working together.
A significant feature of Ontario’s plan is that it includes a proposed linkage with Quebec and California’s market. That would mean carbon allowances could be used interchangeably in all three locations, and that Ontario would begin auctioning allowances at the same time as California and Quebec, who held their last auction in February.
Ontario has a rich history of environmental innovation, and its cap-and-trade program is poised to be a key component of its larger climate policy.
As tempting as it may be to judge the Ontario cap-and-trade program by the revenues it will generate, by far the more important measure of success is what it will do for the environment.