NZ ETS, you are the weakest (international) link

By Mr February 14/08/2012


Simon Johnson (Mr February) argues that the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZETS) is “the weakest link” due to its high exposure to the international carbon market. The strong “international linkage” is the other side of the coin of the uncapped design of the NZETS. Both features reinforce just how ineffective the NZETS is in providing an incentive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Who remembers the The Weakest Link? The quiz show with Anne Robinson the disciplinarian female host with the popular catchphrase “You are the weakest link. Goodbye!” Yes that’s today’s bonkers metaphor for another post on the NZETS. In addition to the observation that I would love to say “Goodbye!” to the ETS, there really is a relevant connection to the economics literature.

“Linking” of emissions trading schemes means that units from one ETS can be imported and surrendered by emitters regulated by a different ETS. There are papers and blog posts about international linkage. The key economic benefit claimed for linking two or more ETS, assuming that they are otherwise sensibly designed, is that the lowest-cost ways of reducing emissions within the linked schemes become available (via emissions trading) to the emitters of the linked schemes.

An example. Pastoral agriculture may or may not have low-cost ways of reducing emissions. If agriculture has relatively high mitigation costs, then you are doing agriculture a favour by including it within a national all-sectors ETS, rather than just in an agriculture ETS. You are doing agriculture even more of a favour it you link to a second ETS. Agriculture can then just buy ‘ways of reducing emissions’ in the form of units from the cheapest seller within 2 different ETS — the emitter who can reduce emissions at lowest cost.

Not surprisingly, National’s Minister for Climate Change (and Trade), Tim Groser, is very keen on linking international emissions trading schemes. Groser also does not want the New Zealand price for emissions units to be “dislodged” from the international price. Well that wouldn’t be lowest-cost, would it?

However, this is all context for two recent reports on the NZETS in the 2011 calendar year. Last Friday, the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) released ‘NZ ETS 2011 Facts and figures’. Earlier, in July, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its report on 2011 unit surrenders and allocations, the Section 89 Climate Change Response Act report.

This table sums up the MfE report.

In 2011, 16.3 million units were surrendered by New Zealand emitters. Of which, 11.7 million units were imported international units (being 4.2 million CERs, 4.3 million ERUs and 3.2 million RMUs.)

Reaction to the Friday’s MfE report was swift. Carbon foresters decried the fact that foreign units were swamping the NZ ETS in 2011 at the expense of units from NZ forestry. “..foreign carbon was the credit of choice for emitters in 2011. International credits comprised a whopping 71% of all units surrendered for compliance..”

BusinessDesk noted the that big emitters had chased the cheap foreign carbon units in preference to NZ units as European carbon prices dropped to historic lows, dragging NZU prices as low as low as $4.50 to $5 per tonne of carbon last week. Another forester said the NZETS was now a Claytons ETS (no doubt having forgotten that Colin James said ‘Claytons emissions trading scheme’ first).

Kennedy Graham of the Greens said there was no incentive for NZ polluters to reduce emissions. Kennedy hits the nail on the head. I don’t disagree with any of these sentiments. The importing of 11.7 million international units really spells out the “weakest international link” design flaw of the NZETS.

But for me the key point is not the number of units imported, it is that the unlimited importing of international units has been hardwired into the design of the NZETS since the Labour government’s 2007 The Framework for a New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme document. And if a small market where the compliance demand is 16 million units can import units from the international market where 977 million units exist, then a cap on domestic emissions is never going to be possible.

Thats why the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme really is the weakest (international) link.