16 October 2011

Corporate lobbying and the financial regulation of EU carbon trading

The European Union is changing its rules on how carbon is traded in response to a series of fraud cases and the financial crisis.

My new report analyses these changes, and looks at how corporate lobbies are trying to influence this process.

It shows that the European Commission initially took a light-touch approach to regulating carbon markets, putting increases in the volume of trade ahead of security concerns. In so doing, it failed to anticipate the specific opportunities for gaming and fraud posed by creating a large market in an intangible commodity. A series of carbon fraud cases, and the role played by “derivatives” in triggering the financial crisis, has made this position untenable and ushered in a new wave of regulation. This brings together measures designed to address fraud and gaming, with others designed to limit the destabilising effects of speculation. These may clean up the market’s image, but they do not address the core problems with carbon trading.

The measures proposed to tackle fraud focus on tightening registry security – in essence, regulating more strictly who can trade in carbon so that it is no longer possible to simply register as a trader from a home computer, steal funds, then disappear without trace. This much is sensible, although the fact that it took a series of fraud cases to bring about these obvious protections casts Commission decision-makers, and the lobbyists who pressured them to avoid regulation, in a poor light.

More controversially, the Commission’s package of security measures manages to include changes that hide serial numbers. The City of London Corporation, not known for its radical pro-regulatory stance, reports surprise at this decision, stating that “It is not understood how this will aid security as it prevents the market from identifying the provenance of the allowances.” Indeed, it is hard to find explanations that do not point towards a cover-up. In making it impossible to anyone except law enforcement agencies to trace individual allowances, the Commission has reduced transparency across the whole scheme, making it harder for civil society to reveal evidence of fraud and gaming, or the perverse effects of the system, and making it impossible to trace the volume of permits re-issued as a result of theft. These reissued permits would, in turn, further inflate the already generous emissions limits that the scheme establishes.

Significant fraud and gaming risks remain, despite these changes. Holes in registry security mean that there is still a risk that carbon trading could be used for money laundering. This is a particular problem across different legal jurisdictions. While the EU is trying to close the door to registry fraud within its borders, it is at the same time attempting to link it’s carbon market to other emerging markets (eg. Australia), as well as allowing offsets to be traded within its scheme – increasing the potential for carbon fraud globally.

Fraud risks, in this narrow sense of deliberate deception for unlawful gain, are potentially less significant than those posed by “gaming” - deliberate deception that is legally sanctioned. As we have shown elsewhere, the lobby pressure to freely allocated large surpluses of emissions permits has resulted in windfall profits for industry and the power sector. The offset markets are notorious for the same practice. CDM credits are issued in relation to “additionality” claims that are impossible to prove. A recently leaked US cable gave dramatic evidence of the scale of this problem, reporting from a meeting in Delhi that “all interlocutors conceded that all Indian projects fail to meet the additionality in investment criteria and none should qualify for carbon credits.” These interlocutors included the Chair of the national CDM authority, as well as some of the country’s largest project verifiers and developers. In a nutshell, carbon trading schemes are awash with paper “reductions” that do not correspond to actual reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in the real world, and this is a systematic problem. Gaming results in windfall profits and undermines efforts to address climate change.

On the side of financial speculation, the key regulatory proposal is to classify carbon as a “financial instrument.” This would bring it under the scope of the Market in Financial Instruments Directive, a key component of EU market legislation that is currently under review. The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) and other financial sector lobbyists have vigorously opposed this change, fearing that it could limit some avenues for financial speculation on carbon. A leaked draft of the proposed Directive suggests that the Commission may not side with the lobbyists, although some key exemptions remain in place. Most notably, leaving it to national authorities to set “position limits” would be ineffective: the majority of trades pass through the UK, which is opposed to this concept and would not implement it in any meaningful way. The restriction to trading on “own account” fails to capture speculation engaged in by energy companies, which are the largest players on the carbon market.

More fundamentally, though, restrictions on speculation shed critical light on the flawed purpose of the carbon market in the first place: it introduces speculation by design, undermining the stated objective of long-termer clean investment decisions. To really address these issues requires bolder steps to de-financinalise climate policy and move away from the carbon market model.

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