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Carbon market faces slow burn to success in China

4 minute read

A cooling tower and chimneys are seen at a thermal power plant on a polluted day in Beijing, China, November 3, 2018.

HONG KONG, July 19 (Reuters Breakingviews) - China’s new carbon market looks on the surface too full of holes. The world’s largest emissions-trading system started with more of a fizzle than a bang on Friday. And it currently lacks the wherewithal to have much impact on reducing the greenhouse gases spewed into the country’s skies. But it could be on a slow burn to success.

The national trading scheme is at least four years late in launching, an indication of the compromises even an authoritarian state has to make to combat climate risk. Securing reliable data has been a particular headache. The energy industry, the first sector to be included, offers “relatively adequate disclosure” according to HSBC’s analysts. But just days before the market opened, Inner Mongolia said a local power plant operator partially owned by Japan’s Mitsui & Co (8031.T) had tampered with its carbon-emissions figures for 2019.

Fines for misstating such data, though, provide little if any financial deterrence at just 30,000 yuan ($4,630) at most. The price on the new trading system doesn’t yet offer much incentive to change behaviour, either: On Friday, a tonne of carbon dioxide emitted was valued at 51.23 yuan. That is far below the minimum of $50 or around 324 yuan the IMF estimates is needed to reduce energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by some 24% in the next decade compared with a business-as-usual scenario and to stay on track to meet Paris Agreement goals.

In addition, major polluting industries such as steelmaking and petrochemicals are yet to be included. There is also no mechanism to reduce overall permitted emissions over time.

However, President Xi Jinping wants China to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. For Beijing, environmental policy is not just an aspiration, but a critical strategy to guard energy security, avoid social unrest and keep a grip on power.

Market participants already expect their carbon quota to tighten over time, while prices rise: One 2020 survey suggested the going rate could double within the decade. New technology, like measuring emissions from space, and third-party checks will help hone the data, while fiercer fines for bad actors and executive rewards tied to emissions reduction could also be on the cards.

As far off as a robust market may feel, it would be a mistake for big polluters to underestimate Xi’s blue-sky thinking.

Follow @KatrinaHamlin on Twitter

CONTEXT NEWS

- China's long-awaited national carbon emissions trading scheme made its debut on July 16 with 4.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide quotas worth 210 million yuan ($32 million) changing hands, Shanghai Securities News reported.

- It is the largest carbon market in the world by volume. More than 2000 power plants, responsible for more than 4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, are included in the first phase of trading.

- The price closed at 51.23 yuan ($7.92) per tonne in its first day of trade, a 6.7% increase.

- For previous columns by the author, Reuters customers can click on

Editing by Antony Currie and Sharon Lam

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