Trade versus climate on the edge of the EU

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Little trickles of detail about the European Union’s (EU) proposed carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) started to emerge last week. The key bit of information that Bloomberg managed to squeeze out of their source was that a transition period with a simplified system is being considered from 2023 and then a full version could turn up in 2026. Cement importers, and those in selected other heavy industries, would be required to buy electronic emission certificates at prices corresponding to those in the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS). Other titbits include: that the prices will be set on a weekly basis based on the average carbon permit price within the EU that week; a default value will be devised for importers who can’t back up their emissions data; and imports from a country with its own carbon pricing scheme will be entitled to a discount. The plans are due to be made public in mid-July 2021. Debate is then expected to follow before approval will be required from the European Parliament and member states.

The detail isn’t out there yet but the CBAM is set to collide with trade agreement territory. For example, how the draft agreement tackles issues such as exports from Europe and whether importers should be compensated for not receiving a free allocation of carbon credits could be seen to offer competitive advantage to one party or another. Climate policy will clash with trade policy once or if the CBAM makes in into law. At this point countries that import cement into the EU may start trying to negotiate or complaining to the World Trade Organisation. One previous example of climate policy bashing into trade agreements is when the EU tried and failed to apply the ETS to aviation in the early 2010s. The experience from this incident is expected to inform the European Commission’s approach on the CBAM.

Outside the EU, new carbon pricing schemes have been popping up all over the place and various cement associations are creating or refining their own carbon neutral plans. Last week in North America, for example, the Cement Association of Canada said it was working with the government on launching a roadmap by the end of 2021. In the US, the Portland Cement Association (PCA) has also been hard at work to publish its own roadmap by the end of 2021. Meanwhile, over in the oil sector there were a couple of victories for activist shareholders in May 2021 with Shell, Exxon Mobil and Chevron all being forced to make changes to their climate change polices by courts and activist investors. This makes one wonder how long it will be before the same thing happens to cement companies.

All this increases the pressure between trading agreements and climate legislation. One of the questions that has popped up at Global Cement’s webinar series has been whether attendees thought that a global carbon pricing and/or trading scheme might be a realistic position or not (the majority said ‘yes’ within 20 years). Yet the EU CBAM, all these sustainability plans and continued pressure by investor activist don’t happen in isolation. They occur in an interconnected world.

So it was both non-surprising and eye-popping to discover recently that a private carbon exchange is being prepared in Singapore for a launch by the end of 2021. Climate Impact X (CIX) is being backed by DBS Bank, Singapore Exchange, Standard Chartered and the Singapore-government owned investment company Temasek. As for which companies would actually voluntarily enter into a scheme that would actively reduce profits, the answer lies above. Any organisation looking to trade between carbon pricing jurisdictions might well have an economic incentive to find a truly international scheme that was reputable. Or, perhaps, a publicly owned company dealing in carbon-intensive products might be bullied into one by its activist investors. The focus on such an exchange being reputable is essential here, given the potentially large amounts of money that could be involved and the mixed views on existing carbon offsetting schemes. CIX says it will use satellite monitoring, machine learning and blockchain technology to ensure the integrity of its carbon credits and this is certainly thinking in the right direction. Until it arrives though, we wait to see the detail on the EU CBAM.

Last modified on 09 June 2021


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