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How China can shape the future of carbon markets
About 75% of current electricity supply in China comes from thermal power generation, mostly coal-fired power plants. In the above February 17, 2015 photo, a man cycles past cooling towers of coal-fired power plants in Fuxin, a prefecture-level city in northwestern Liaoning province, China (AP Photo/Greg Baker).

By Joseph Nyangon
December 23, 2015

In the lead-up to the 2015 Paris climate change conference, policymakers stressed the need for creation of integrated carbon markets and called for linking new climate financing mechanisms with the United Nations-organized Green Climate Fund (GCF) based in South Korea. Both the U.S. and China have committed to accelerating the transition to low-carbon development internationally. Through a $3 billion per year pledge to GCF by the U.S. and a new $3.1 billion climate finance guarantee by China to support other developing countries to combat climate change, the two countries have committed to enhance multilateral climate cooperation. [1]

Carbon markets have emerged as part of the solution to the problem of climate change. Examples of these markets include the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the U.S., and the Western Climate Initiative (a joint program of California and two Canadian provinces – British Colombia and Quebec). New cap-and-trade schemes for 2016 have been announced by South Korea, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, and China (which will test models with seven ETS pilots).

While carbon markets are being used more frequently as a policy option, the question remains if such markets will actually reduce emissions and make development more sustainable. A common worry is how cap-and-trade decisions would be balanced with those stemming from often regulated markets governing carbon-intensive sectors, especially energy commodity markets, which have a clear growth orientation.

On his historic state visit to the U.S. in September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced new and strengthened climate actions, including the establishment of a national cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2017. [1] The declaration made in Washington D.C. in a joint meeting with President Barack Obama builds on the historic November 2014 U.S.-China joint announcement on climate change, enhances bilateral and multilateral climate cooperation and together, provided momentum for securing the Paris Agreement—a historic climate change policy architecture to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and ramp-up mitigation and adaptation worldwide. This is truly a bright spot for cap-and-trade systems, especially considering the potential implications for China’s price-controlled energy sector. The nation accounts for nearly 30% of global GHG emissions, placing it as the world’s biggest emitting nation, followed by the United States.

China’s market-based carbon pricing system will be the world’s largest, and will apply initially to power generation, iron and steel industries, chemical firms, building materials, cement and paper-making industries, and non-ferrous metals manufacturing. The electricity sector is particularly important because China’s energy-related CO2 emissions are expected to grow until 2030. [2] For this reason, the discussion here focuses on the energy sector and how China can balance its domestic commitments in the electricity industry and the proposed nationwide ETS market to advance emissions trading as the most efficient policy instrument to address GHG emissions, in lieu of command-and-control or carbon taxes measures. While important details remain to be worked out, including the level of the cap, accreditation and verification systems, allocation of allowances, registry and market oversight, and regulations on the use of carbon offsets, the key takeaway is that China has signalled its commitment to achieving its post-2020 intention to move toward a low-carbon and climate resilient economy.

Here are six critical ways China can shape the future of carbon governance through reforms of its energy sector and a balanced ETS market development:

1. Develop a priority dispatch policy for renewable energy generation
This tool would enable China to prioritize power generation from renewable sources in its power sector. It would also establish distribution and dispatching guidelines to accept electricity from the most efficient and lowest-polluting fossil fuel power generators first. China has committed to implementing a clean electricity dispatch system. The 2005 landmark Renewable Energy Law includes a provision for a priority “green dispatch” system in the power sector but its actual implementation has been difficult because of the current structure of the power system. This is particularly critical for China because even though it now leads in global wind and solar energy manufacturing, 75% of its current electricity supply comes from thermal power generation, mostly coal-fired power plants.

2. Ensure state-owned and private energy companies have equal rights and liabilities in the ETS
Most state-owned Chinese companies enjoy monopoly positions due to the current political system and state capitalism policy, which gives them a dominant position in the energy and power sector. Success of a nationwide cap-and-trade policy will depend upon rules in which state-owned and private energy firms have equal responsibility to avoid carbon emissions. Such a responsibility would obviate fears that the state industry sector would have undue control of the energy market and the potential to manipulate electricity prices.

3. Ensure transparency in allocation of allowances and trading rules
For the success of a nationwide carbon market, China must encourage full participation of companies, especially energy and power firms, by addressing current concerns that ETS will increase their production costs or reduce profits. The experience of the EU ETS demonstrates that cap-and-trade as a policy instrument can fail if there is insufficient political will to limit the number of available allowances to energy-intensive production sectors.

4. Establish independent carbon market monitoring systems
The central government selected the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Provincial Development and Reform Commissions (PDRCs) as the lead authorities responsible for managing its ETS pilots. Because energy and power sectors are controlled by the National Energy Administration (NEA), [3] a department affiliated with NDRC, establishing an independent carbon market monitoring body could help to promote the development of the ETS in China and diminish potential institutional imprinting challenges from the old system.

5. Increase the share of non-fossil energy sources and establish a carbon intensity cap
Economic restructuring to promote low-carbon development, promoting technology advancement and improving energy efficiency are essential strategies for mitigating GHG emissions. These strategies as well as implementing measurable targets for CO2 intensity would help China to explicitly address climate protection concerns (e.g., increasing the share of non-fossil energy composition in the mix of primary energy sources, and creating carbon trading exchanges). In addition to improving energy efficiency and increasing renewable energy generation, establishing a carbon intensity cap would be an important step toward an eventual introduction of a nationwide ETS.

6. Establish inter-regional carbon trading
China’s twenty-three provinces differ with respect to economic strength, industrial composition and related energy demands, making implementation of a national carbon trading a daunting challenge. The initial pilot ETSs (begun in 2013) did not allow inter-regional carbon trading. At the national level, this would be critical to carbon governance in China and should be developed via a bottom-up approach to achieve numerous mandatory intensity and efficiency targets.

China has a unique opportunity to shape the future of carbon markets. Its pilot carbon trading experience, industrial structure, economic development and capacity to link its national ETS with other schemes give the country a distinguished advantage. A future well-linked Chinese national ETS with other schemes internationally will require harmonisation of rules, reliable emissions accounting, mutual acceptance of the scheme caps, and enforcement of trading regulations in all participating jurisdictions. Although China’s pilot ETSs are at a very early stage and assessing them in terms of impact on emissions reduction and regional integration of carbon markets would be immature, certain problems are apparent when one examines the potential of the carbon market. These issues concern transparency in allocation of allowances and the effectiveness of legal enforcement, lack of unified ETS framework at the inter-regional level, and incentive-inducing policy tools.

Final Remarks
China’s pledge to create the world’s largest market-based carbon pricing system is an exciting step and demonstration of its commitment to achieve a unified ETS market and to pursue a low carbon economy. Can China innovate on both economic and environmental fronts, bringing these key factors together to boost the next phase of climate-resiliency? Any change in the energy sector will surely have a global impact, and striking the right balance to realize just and sustainable solutions to the problems of climate change will place the country in a strong carbon leadership position.

[1] White House Joint Presidential Statement:
[2] The Chinese ETS Pilots: An IETA Analysis:
[3] Chinese Government Releases Major Policy Guidance on Renewable Integration and Related Issues:

Photo: AP/Greg Baker

Correspondence Information:
Center for Energy Environmental Policy
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