EU carbon allowances are bought and sold as part of the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS). Currently the UK is part of the EU ETS, but continued participation is contingent on a deal with the European Union.
What are carbon allowances?
EU carbon allowances, or European Allowances (EUAs) serve as the unit of compliance under the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS). EUAs are auctioned for use by energy-intensive industries that fall under the scheme, namely power generators, oil refiners, and steel companies, entitling them to emit one tonne of CO2.
The EU ETS works on the ‘cap and trade’ principle. A limit has been set on the amount of EUAs made available, capping the total amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted by installations that fall under the system. As the cap decreases with time, total emissions fall.
These emission allowances work as tradeable goods, allowing companies to receive or buy them. After each year a company must use enough allowances to cover all its emissions, otherwise they will be heavily fined. Spare allowances can be saved to cover future needs or sold onto other companies that are short of allowances.
Overcoming the oversupply
The 2008 global financial crisis and the recession that followed saw a large oversupply of carbon allowances build up, which in turn saw prices reach all-time lows for an extended period. At the end of 2016 the EU ETS had an oversupply of 1.7bn tonnes worth of EUAs, which significantly weakened the incentive to reduce emissions.
In response, the European Commission has introduced a long-term solution known as the Market Stability Reserve (MSR), which will begin operations in January 2019. The purpose of the MSR will be to address the current surplus of allowances and to improve the system’s resilience to major impacts by adjusting the supply of allowances to be auctioned.
This will see 900 million allowances, which were back-loaded between 2014 and 2016, transferred to the Reserve, rather than be auctioned in 2019-2020. After this, unallocated allowances will also be transferred to the Reserve.
To improve regulation, the Commission will publish the total number of allowances in circulation by 15 May each year. They will then examine whether more allowances should be placed into the Reserve or released.
How will Brexit affect these plans?
With Brexit looming, there’s uncertainty as to whether these changes will affect the UK. Under current plans the UK will remain a member of the EU ETS until at least 2020, almost a full year after its scheduled departure from the EU in March 2019.
Experts have warned that exiting the scheme before 2020, in the middle of an ETS trading phase, would cause disruption for both UK businesses and EU firms. However, staying within the scheme is contingent on a deal with the EU, something which the Energy and Climate Change Minister, Claire Perry, has acknowledged is yet to be formally agreed with EU policymakers.
What if there’s no deal?
Under a ‘no deal’ scenario, the UK would be excluded from participating in the scheme. This would mean current participants in the EU ETS who are UK operators of installations will no longer take part in the system. The UK government plans to remove the requirements relating to the surrender of emissions allowances as, post-Brexit, the European Commission will invalidate any allowances issued by the UK in 2019, such that they would have no value on the carbon market.
In this instance, the UK government will initially meet its existing carbon pricing commitments through the tax system, taking effect in 2019. A carbon price would be applied across the UK, with the inclusion of Northern Ireland.