Monthly Archives: January 2011

Carbon trading grows up

Cross-posted from Reuters AlertNet.

When someone robs a bank, nobody challenges the legitimacy of banks. They suggest instead that the bank find better security. Why should carbon markets be any different?

Wednesday last week the European Commission (EC) discovered cyber thefts of carbon allowances valued at around €30 million from accounts in a handful of member states. It promptly halted all trading in its nearly €130 billion/year market until the holes could be plugged, accounts could be cleared, the stolen allowances could be traced by their unique identifying numbers, and culprits could be identified.

The fact that some trading registries are apparently less secure than your Facebook account is a clear problem and points to serious underinvestment in market infrastructure and security.

It certainly does not call into question, however, the idea of carbon trading, although some opponents of carbon markets have taken that step. These people range from outright climate deniers—those who can't even admit we have a global warming problem—to those who believe that markets aren't the most efficient way of addressing climate change, to those who can't capitalize on the carbon market's opportunities.

Let's be clear: Putting a firm limit on carbon pollution, and providing polluters with flexibility in determining how to reduce pollution—including through transparent trading of pollution allowances—is fundamentally the best way to combat global warming pollution.

This basic fact is not changed by a €30 million theft of carbon credits that might have been prevented through a €10 thousand investment in security software and better computer hardware. Although not perfect, markets are the most rational and efficient way of allocating resources toward filling a specific need. Every stock exchange on the planet faces attempted cyber attacks, and most are well equipped to deal with them.

A day after the theft was discovered, the EC released a wholly separate, long-awaited decision to stop accepting pollution credits generated by destroying trifluoromethane, HFC-23, and nitrous oxide. Opponents of carbon markets seized on this announcement as further evidence that carbon trading markets aren’t working.

But actually, the EC's decision to stop accepting these credits is the right move. HFC-23 was originally developed as an alternative to ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons. HFC-23 is a potent global warming gas, and destroying it helps the climate.

However, trading in HFC-23 credits creates perverse incentives. With a high enough price for carbon credits, it could make economic sense to build factories that produce HFC-23 for the sole purpose of destroying the gas and collecting credit for doing so. A better way for dealing with HFC-23 would be to subsume it under the successful Montreal Protocol, which is working to repair the hole in the ozone layer.

The coincidence of the EC’s decision to stop trading HFC-23 credits and the temporary suspension of trading on the heels of the carbon allowance theft, gave opponents of trading the opportunity to launch a two-pronged critique of carbon markets. But barring HFC-23 credits from entering the EU system can only be applauded—it's entirely in the spirit of putting a firm upper limit on carbon pollution.

These two events highlight the carbon opportunity for the EC going forward. The emissions trading system has already proven its worth as the centerpiece of European efforts to cut global warming pollution. By improving the technical security of its trading program, the EC can assure investors that no more emissions allowances will be purloined.

And by closing its carbon market to credits from one-off HFC-23-type projects of dubious environmental value, and instead linking the EU market with jurisdictions that establish high-quality cap-and-trade systems, the EC can strengthen its own market and challenge others who are developing similar policies—from New Zealand to Tokyo to California, and beyond—to follow suit.

In the end, that’s all that counts—and the only thing the planet truly notices.

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Not the U.S. or China, but the U.S., China and the Planet

One of the pleasures of my job is having a slew of superbly qualified prospective interns knock on our doors. Yesterday, I interviewed someone who graduated at the top of his class at Renmin University in Beijing.

There have been plenty of column inches written on "China versus the US," including when it comes to green jobs and clean tech. So,

Who's going to come out ahead, China or the United States?

It took him nary a second to nail this one:

China, relatively. Both China and the U.S. in an absolute sense.

That's the textbook answer.

The atmosphere wins

China has a lot of catching up to do. Comparatively, it will clearly gain on the U.S. But trade also has advantages for both parties involved. That's why we trade in the first place.

The planet emerges as a winner as well. It doesn't care where a ton of carbon gets emitted or where it gets reduced—just that reductions happen.

If China produces cheaper solar panels, we get fewer emissions overall. The planet wins. China wins. What about the U.S.?

What about jobs?

If you are among the 800 workers in Devens, MA, who last week found out that Evergreen Solar was moving its plant to China, you will feel very differently about free trade right about now. The textbook economic answer would say that the move can still make everyone better off: compensate the losers through portions of the gains from the winners, and everybody wins once again.

This situation, of course, is the moment when you throw out your textbook and think about the full consequences.

As a result of the move, solar panels will likely become even cheaper for everyone, enabling many more to buy them. Still, the Devens 800 will not be among the people lining up to buy cheaper solar panels.

What can they do? What should the U.S. do as a matter of policy?

First, we need to realize that the rules of trade still apply. China has lots of cheap labor. It does and will continue to manufacture many products sold in the U.S. Solar panels are no different.

But that's still not a satisfying answer, nor is it the whole story—not for manufacturing itself, and not for the clean tech industry overall.

How to keep clean tech jobs in the U.S.

To get to the bottom of this, we need to look at the full supply chain for solar panels. This, of course, oversimplifies things, but we can split the entire process into three distinct buckets: inventing, producing, and installing.

Right now, the U.S. is inventing, China is producing, and it is the one installing the resulting solar panels domestically at massive scale.

The U.S. ought to do everything to make sure it keeps inventing clean tech products. That means a concerted push to fund basic research and development. But R&D subsidies alone won't do.

Many mentions of "R&D" add a second "D" for deployment. Government support can get things going, but large-scale deployment of clean technologies won't happen through subsidies alone (at least not without bankrupting the government).

So how do you get deployment up to scale?

Deployment clearly needs to be driven by demand. That's where a cap on carbon pollution, with its resulting price on carbon, comes in. A cap helps create a more level playing field for solar and other renewable energy sources relative to fossil energy and, therefore, creates the necessary demand. (There are alternatives, like simply requiring a certain percentage of power to come from solar, but none is quite as cheap and flexible as a cap.)

Made in USA?

Moreover, cheap labor and cheaper production facilities may be a decisive factor, but they are not the only reason companies consider when choosing where to locate. There are many more, but let's focus on two: intellectual property (IP) protection and being close to where the demand is.

The U.S. has a leg up on China in terms of IP protection. That's, in part, why the U.S. (still) leads on R&D. It's also a clear draw for some companies to locate their production facilities in the U.S.

Another oft-cited reason is to be close to consumers. That's once again where the importance of the second "D"—deployment—comes in. The more demand there is for solar panels in the U.S., the more companies will locate their production plants in the U.S. as well. The case of First Solar supplying panels for Wal-Mart is a prime example. (Note that this is distinct from cheaper production leading to more demand in the first place.)

In the end, though, we must also be clear that jobs will be different in the new, cleaner economy. We will need fewer gas station attendants. Many other jobs will thrive. Underlying trade forces will mean that China may well be producing many of the solar panels sold globally. Assembling, installing, and maintaining solar panels in the U.S. will require plenty of skilled labor. And none of these jobs can be exported.

California leading

With the right policies in place, the U.S. will keep inventing. It will also create thousands of jobs dedicated to deployment. China will play a major role in producing, but even there, smart environmental policy can only help.

California is taking the lead with its Million Solar Roofs initiative, creating many a job assembling, installing, and maintaining solar panels. That initiative, though, still has to be paid for by tax dollars, and it won't go on forever.

That's where the cap on carbon kicks in. California is bound to stay ahead of the rest of the U.S. with its ambitious cap-and-trade system that starts on January 1, 2012 and the resulting market signal that says that clean tech pays in the U.S. as well.

Consider the just-released Next 10 report, Many Shades of Green, that found that in the most recent observable 12-month period (January 2008 – January 2009) jobs in the green sector grew more than three times faster than total employment in California. (Of course, all of this always comes with the warning that green sector jobs are still a small fraction of total jobs—much like IT jobs were a minuscule part of overall employment in the early 1980s.)

One of our internship spot may well end up going to a Chinese student, but that, too, can only be good for the planet—making a small contribution to help train the next generation of Chinese environmental leaders. And rest assured, there are plenty more open job positions (including one for a post-doc working with our economic team, open to anyone with a Princeton affiliation).

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