European Union (very) slowly tightens the screws on its Emissions Trading Scheme

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It looks like Cembureau, the European Cement Association, got its own way on the proposal to amend the European Union's (EU) Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) that the European Parliament voted on last week. The system has been tightened but not enough to make the cement industry suffer, for now. Naturally, the environmentalists are outraged.

The key reform was that the carbon credits reduction rate (the linear reduction rate) will increase and the market stability reserve (MSR) will double its capacity to absorb excess allowances on the market. However, the big battle was fought over whether to include an importer inclusion scheme (or Border Adjustment Measure) or not. Lots of political 'horse-trading' took place right up to the vote on 15 February 2017 to adopt the draft proposal, with particular battles over the importer inclusion scheme. Negotiations will now continue with the Council of the European Union before the proposal returns to the European Parliament for a final vote.

Cembureau seemed pleased with the outcome. It supported the proposal principally for maintaining competitiveness and for not ‘deliberately discriminate between sectors.' It also liked the inclusion of dynamic allocation, a benchmark based on what it said was real data, a flexible reserve in relation to the allowances available for free and those designated for auctioning and an impetus towards funding carbon capture and storage. It also singled out its pleasure that an amendment for an importer inclusion scheme had not been accepted.

This last point caused a spat between Cembureau and Bruno Vanderborght, a former executive at Holcim, at the end of January 2017 in the lobbying frenzy before the vote. In robust language Vanderborght accused the European cement industry of using the ETS for negative leakage. His argument was that the free allocation of carbon credits given to the cement industry had been used to 'maximise gross margin.' Instead of spending the money on upgrading inefficient units, the industry had used its same inefficient units to increase exports of clinker to outside the EU, to places like Africa. Cembureau countered that it had been taken out of context by Vanderborght and that arguments he levelled, such as data from the Cement Sustainability Initiative (CSI) suggesting that the EU has the highest share of clinker production in old, energy-intensive installations worldwide, were misleading since CSI reporting may not be as thorough outside of Europe.

Predictably, the proposal didn't please the environmental lobby, which denounced the deal as toothless. Environmental campaign group Sandbag has been on the case of the cement industry for several years, pointing out that its own research shows that cement producers have 'abused' the free allocation scheme for profit and that emissions have actually increased under the ETS so far. Its headline figure in the wake of the vote was that the cement sector was set to rake in a surplus of allowances worth Euro2.8bn by 2030.

Following the vote Sandbag took no time to point out that the ETS carbon price had sunk below Euro5/t. In its assessment, a carbon price of least Euro50/t is required to stimulate low carbon investment. However, the carbon price soon rose back up. Little impartial analysis is available on whether the amended proposal will actually deliver its aims, although a Thomson Reuters analyst did describe the outcome as one that 'significantly tightens the market balance.'

In a final twist, the lead rapporteur for the reforms to the EU ETS is a UK member of the European Parliament (MEP). Depending on how the Brexit negotiations go, the guy marshalling the amendments to the EU ETS won't be subject to its eventual implementation.

The EU ETS is slowly starting to improve through reforms such as those voted on last week but it remains very much in doubt whether it will be able to deliver solid meaningful reductions in carbon emissions. Cembureau is rightly protecting the industry it represents but at present the price of coal appears to be a better driver of measures such as increased use of alternative fuels than the ETS. The ETS has had the misfortune in operating for the last few years throughout a market depression in Europe where it has been propping up some cement producers and now it’s helping them get back on their feet as they export their products out of the continent. In a world awash with excess clinker the policy makers are eventually going to have to decide how much they want to damage industry in order to meet their environmental aims. We need cement and we need to cut carbon emissions. Someone is always going to be unhappy in this situation.


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