Some more thoughts on the EU ETS backloading debate

I’ve been struck by how a number of the framings of the backloading (withdrawing European Union Allowances  – EUAs – from the system for a specific period of time) debate re the EU ETS have attempted a ‘depoliticising’ move – have in effect argued that what the failure of the EU ETS (so far, it’s coming back to the EU parliament later on this month) to agree to backloading should be interpreted to mean that decisions about the EU ETS should be taken out of the politicians and put into the hands of ‘competent’ technocrats.

Katherine Lake at the University of Melbourne, for example, argued that we need a “carbon bank“, to make decisions about the allocation of EUAs, instead of the European Parliament. It would operate along similar lines to an independent central bank for the supply of money: given a specific target (like the inflation targets most central banks work to) and then left to manage the availability of carbon allowances to meet that target. The Carbon Markets and Investors Association (CMIA), the lobby group for carbon traders, were more explicit and took to Twitter to argue that the EUETS “should be in the hands of a professional independent Carbon body not MEPs”.

What seems to me to be going on here is a shift in how carbon markets are understood to operate. In this framing, the carbon market becomes an end not a means. It becomes understood as something that is first and foremost a market, and should operate according to the “normal” function of other markets. Prices should be determined by supply and demand, and where prices collapse (as they have since the recession), this implies some sort of disequilibrium in the functioning of the market that needs to be corrected.

But of course carbon markets are artifices in the extreme. Perhaps no markets are “natural” in the sense that Adam Smith understood them (as the reflection of the “natural propensity to barter and truck”) but carbon markets more than perhaps any other arise not out of a “spontaneous” formation amongst buyers and sellers, but as a specific regulatory intervention designed to reduce GHG emissions. The official economic rationale is that if they work properly they do so at the lowest overall cost to society.

But this means that first and foremost, carbon markets are means, not ends. They are there to help achieve GHG reductions, anything else is secondary. They may in fact be useless at doing this, in which case they should be abandoned (as many critics of carbon markets argue powerfully).

But this means that the backloading debate should not be understood as about the “proper functioning of the market”, and thus depoliticised via the establishment of a carbon bank. In effect what occurs in the carbon bank proposal is that the target that such a bank would be asked to achieve is not a specific GHG emissions reduction target but a carbon price target (in which case you might as well simply have a carbon tax). In a cap and trade system, the aim is for a specific reduction in GHG emissions, not a specific carbon price. So to backload, or withdraw allowances from the system, is to increase the ambition of the overall climate policy target.

Now this would be an excellent thing, and as I have argued elsewhere, one of the advantages of a cap and trade system (they have many flaws) is that in a recession it creates pressure for making climate policy more ambitious (whereas with a carbon tax the pressure would go the other way) but it is anything but a simple managerial or technical matter. It goes to the heart of our collective decisions about climate change policy. To think otherwise is to treat carbon markets as ends in themselves, which in effect is to treat the pursuit of the interests of the carbon traders (who want high prices to generate demand for hedging instruments) or some of the regulated firms (electricity generators who are net sellers of EUAs, for example) as the primary goal of the policy. It is highly useful that such actors see benefits of climate policy, as it helps sustain the legitimacy of climate policy. But the basic goals of the policy – the overall level of ambition in emissions reductions, should be kept in the hands of open political debate.


Thinking Again About the Crisis of EU Climate Policy

The demise of carbon markets has been predicted a number of times. The latest episode to provoke this claim was the failure of the European Parliament to strengthen the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) in a recent vote on what is called ‘backloading’, or withholding a number of emission allowances under the system from auction to create scarcity and drive up carbon prices. The Economist proclaimed ETS, RIP?, while the byline for George Monbiot’s piece in the Guardian stated that “the European emissions trading system died last week”.

But before we see the current problem of the EU ETS as a signal that ET has failed, think about the politics of the main overarching alternative—carbon taxes.

Canadian energy strategy: the challenge of integrating climate change

If the Canadian energy strategy proposed by Alison Redford is to be anything other than a disaster for climate change, the two need to be consciously integrated.

for more, see

A Twitter teaching adventure

I am planning to use Twitter in my first year intro to political science class next year (Fall Semester). It’s a big class, 200-odd students. The focus is conceptual – on the core ideas in political science they will need in their programme (power, the state, legitimacy, democracy, that sort of thing).

My plan is to use it principally to get the students into habits of sharing material, having online conversations – using Twitter’s public character in the hope that these conversations will become self-starting.

So the plan at the moment is to:
• Require the students to create a Twitter account and to follow me so I can use it to post material about the course to them (a colleague did a show of hands and she said around a third of her students said they had Twitter accounts already).
• Compile a list of suggested Twitter accounts to follow so they will get course-relevant feeds.
• Create a hashtag for the course and get them to look at it regularly and post anything related to the course using the hashtag – articles they found useful or interesting, ideas in the media of relevance, questions to other students or to me.
• During class, I plan to switch the screen to the hashtag periodically to allow them to use that as a way of posing questions to the class or reacting to points I make. Ideally I would have a separate screen showing the hashtag constantly, but I’m not sure it’s technically possible in the classroom I’ll be in.

Their participation in the hashtag conversation will form part of a participation grade for the course as a whole (probably just 5%). My aim is that at least a decent number will become self-organising and start to get into good habits of using it for research (rather than just following @MileyCyrus or this year’s teen heart-throb). It also seems to me this might help correct the bias against introverts in grading in-class participation.

This of course leaves lots of questions I haven’t worked out yet. For example:

• Should I create a twitter account and use that for Tweeting to the course? I’ve actually already done this but then thought it was an unnecessary stage. The hashtag at the moment seems to me to get what I want in terms of participation. The only downside of using my own account is that anyone following me personally will get all my course-related tweets.
• Who would be good people to get them to follow? I was going to put a few good newspaper politics feeds (but not many, it’s not a current affairs course), and some academic general ones I know (like the LSE politics blog feed). But any ideas of good feeds for general discussions about the nature of politics as a subject gratefully received.
• Any other ideas as to how I could use it for teaching purposes? I did find this useful:

If only we could take the politics out …

‘If only we could take the politics out’ has become a ubiquitous cry in contemporary political life. This can be seen everywhere, but Barack Obama’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline is a classic instance. It has been decried from all sides as one in which ‘politics’ intruded into a decision that (purportedly) should not have been political. It was sullied by election-year politics–with (for some) the Republicans in Congress forcing Obama’s hand by insisting on a short timeline for his decision, and (for others) Obama playing to his audience on what one Nebraska Republican congressman called ‘the environmental Left’. Which side of this fence you are on determines which spin you give here—but both have the same logic: the decision was determined by ‘politics’ rather than the supposedly objective facts of the case.

for more, read on:

Canada’s obstructionist approach to climate change talks

It’s looking like the 17th Conference of the Parties to the UN climate treaty in Durban will not produce the sorts of breakthrough in negotiations that many have hoped for. Countries have spent much of the last two years trying to work through the unravelling of the negotiations that occurred in Copenhagen two years ago, to see how they might find the basis for a deal. While there has been progress on some issues, we are still a long way from an overall deal.

to read on, see:

Going Rogue: Canada and the Kyoto Protocol

So the Canadian government is apparently planning, according to numerous media reports, to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. The Environment Minister, Peter Kent, refuses to confirm or deny the reports.

To read on, see: