Briefing Paper 2
UN Climate Change Conference Email: email@example.com Website: www.twnside.org.sg 7 - 18 December 2009, Copenhagen Address: 131 Jalan Macalister, 10400 Penang, MALAYSIA Tel: 60-4-2266728/2266159 Fax: 60-4-2264505
Carbon Markets and Financial Risk
By Michelle Chan, Friends of the Earth, US
UNFCCC Annex I Parties’ negotiators may still be struggling to agree on major points of climate policy, but they are
united in one goal: the establishment of a global carbon trading market. However, given the environmental ineffectiveness
of carbon trading thus far, the quest to create a global market in carbon may instead only result in enriching "Wall 1Street" banks while posing new systemic financial risks. 1. Market risks from carbon trading
1.1 Carbon trading is derivatives trading
Most carbon trading, although it is rarely described as so, is actually derivatives trading. Currently, most
carbon, especially offsets, are sold as simple futures contracts (a type of derivative). These contracts are
promises to deliver carbon allowances or credits in a certain quantity, at a certain price, at a specified date.
Today’s carbon markets are small, but if the United States adopts carbon trading (on the scale envisioned by
the climate legislation which passed the US House of representatives), carbon futures will become what
Commodity Futures Trading Commissioner Bart Chilton called the biggest of any derivatives product.
Chilton conservatively estimates that within a few years of being launched, the US carbon futures market 2could reach US$ 2 trillion in nominal value. 1.2 Derivatives are poorly regulated
As the global financial crisis has shown, derivatives are not well regulated, and regulations are practically
non-existent at a global level. Currently, national and international policy makers are debating on how to
reform derivatives markets, particularly the so-called "dark markets" in over-the-counter derivatives
(unreported and regulated financial deals made between two parties, rather than standardized contracts
traded on exchanges). However, these regulations are in flux, and traders are aggressively lobbying to insert
as many exceptions and loopholes as possible into emerging rules.
It would be imprudent to promote the creation of a large new global derivatives market without creating a
robust set of global financial regulations to match.
1.3 General derivatives regulations are not enough to govern carbon
Even if derivatives in general were excellently governed, they would not be enough to govern carbon
commodities. Unlike other commodities, carbon allowances have one single producer with no marginal
cost of production, and can be banked indefinitely with no costs. This makes it difficult for regulators to
determine whether the price of carbon is tied to “market fundamentals.” Emissions trading schemes are also
supposedly designed so that the supply of allowances is supposed to contract, making market surveillance
activities (e.g. monitoring whether prices are being artificially manipulated) more difficult.
1 This briefing is summarized from two reports, Subprime Carbon?: Re-thinking the World's Largest New Derivatives Market, Friends of the Earth US, March 2009 at http://www.foe.org/pdf/SubprimeCarbonReport.pdf; and
Smaller, Simpler and More Stable: Designing Carbon Markets for Environmental and Financial Integrity, September 2009
2 http://www.cftc.gov/ucm/groups/public/@newsroom/documents/speechandtestimony/opachilton-14.pdf 1
To make matters worse, policy makers around the world are designing carbon markets to be particularly complex, which makes them prone to gaming and even more difficult to regulate. For example, in the European Union (EU) free allowance give-aways and over-allocation have distorted carbon prices. In the US, policy makers are contemplating creating a "trigger price" for carbon (i.e. flooding the market with additional carbon if prices get too high), which provides additional opportunities for market manipulation and gaming.
Ultimately, carbon markets are supposed to be established with an environmental objective, and must be regulated as such. General derivatives regulations, which are designed to prevent fraud and manipulation, are necessary but not sufficient.
1.4 Conflicts of interest in the carbon market
Conflicts of interest are widespread in the financial sector, and carbon is no exception.
Conflicts of interest are particularly acute in the offset market, where project developers pay consultants to independently evaluate greenhouse gas reductions. If the verifier also offers project development consulting services, this replicates the conflicts of interest between accounting and management consulting in the Enron affair.
Offset crediting agencies may also be subject to corruption and pressure to approve credits generously and quickly. For example, in 2008 an offsets trade association slammed the Clean Development Mechanism 3(CDM) Executive Board over “unacceptable delays.” As carbon markets grow, especially secondary
markets, crediting agencies may not only be bullied by offset providers and regulated entities, but also by institutional investors such as pension funds and sovereign wealth funds.
Carbon markets are a politically generated and managed market with a compliance requirement (e.g. company compliance with greenhouse gas caps). It is precisely these politically generated and managed facets of carbon trading, as well as its compliance aspects, which can make carbon markets especially vulnerable to lobbying and regulatory capture. For carbon trading to be successful from environmental, financial, and governance perspectives, policy makers and market regulators must be particularly insulated from corruption and political influence. In light of the catastrophic regulatory failures that gave rise to the current financial crisis, it is naïve to believe that carbon trading will be immune to corruption and conflicts of interest.
1.5 A market dominated by speculators
As carbon markets mature, the size of secondary markets (where individual or re-packaged carbon is sold for the second, third, or twentieth time) will vastly overshadow the primary markets (where carbon is bought and sold for the first time). That is because Wall Street financiers are likely to end up dominating carbon markets, even though they do not actually need the credits or allowances.
Some of these financial players will be traditional speculators, who want to make money by betting on whether the price of carbon will go up or down. Others will be “passive investors” such as pension funds which buy carbon and hoard it, hoping for -- and forcing -- the price to go up. If other commodities markets, such as oil and corn, are any guide, passive investors will probably end up owning about 40 percent of outstanding commodities contracts. This distorts markets and creates excessive speculation, while providing little benefit to companies seeking to comply with carbon caps.
3 “Carbon Industry Group Slams UN’s CDM Market Over Delays,” Platt’s Emissions Daily, September 18, 2008.
1.6 "Financial innovation" in the carbon markets
Another lesson learned from the financial crisis is that modern financial markets are sophisticated and
creative. As carbon markets grow, Wall Street banks will not simply broker in plain carbon, but they will
create complex new financial products based on carbon commodities. Even if policy makers adopt the most
robust and best written derivatives regulation possible, "financial innovation" will likely outstrip the ability
of regulators to keep up.
Already, financial engineers have developed carbon-backed securities (see box below), carbon index funds,
carbon exchange traded funds, and other products for institutional investors such as pension funds and
others. The proliferation of new financial products will drive more money into the carbon markets, while
also spreading subprime carbon risks.
Financial innovation in carbon markets
In November 2008, banking giant Credit Suisse announced a securitized carbon deal that bundled together carbon credits from 25 offset projects at various stages of UN (CDM) approval, sourced from three countries
and five project developers. These assets were then split into three portions representing different risk levels
and sold to investors, a process known as securitization. Carbon-backed securities sound hauntingly close to
mortgage-backed securities because they are indeed very similar in structure. Although the Credit Suisse deal
was relatively modest, future deals could become bigger and more complex, bundling hundreds or thousands
of carbon credits of mixed types and origins, perhaps enhanced with agreements to swap more risky carbon
credits for safer assets (such as government-issued emissions allowances) as “insurance” against junk carbon.
1.7 Subprime carbon
“Subprime carbon” -- called “junk carbon” by traders -- are contracts to deliver carbon that carry a higher
risk of not being fulfilled, and thus may collapse in value. They are comparable to subprime loans or junk
bonds, debts that carry a higher probability of not being paid. Carbon offset credits can carry particularly
high risks because many things can go wrong with offset projects. Not only do such projects face normal
commercial and operational risks, but independent verifiers may find that a project has not reduced the
projected amount of emissions, for example, or the CDM Executive Board may determine that a project
failed to comply with relevant standards. Subprime carbon particularly can become a problem because
sellers can make promises ahead of time to deliver carbon credits before the credits are issued, or sometimes
even before greenhouse gas emissions have been verified.
1.8 The build-up of subprime carbon creates broader financial risks
In today's interconnected financial markets, the build-up of subprime assets in one part of the economy can
pose risks to the broader financial system. Subprime risks may particularly build up in carbon markets for
First, the problem of subprime carbon is mostly associated with offsets, rather than government-issued
allowances. In the US, Europe, Australia, and other economies, there is immense pressure to expand the use
of offsets to meet emissions reductions obligations. But the more carbon offsets are allowed into the trading
system, the greater the risk of subprime carbon building up in the system.
Secondly, since carbon markets will be dominated by speculators, a carbon bubble may develop. Bubble
mentalities can encourage excessive risk-taking and unscrupulous behavior. For example, in the current
financial crisis, home loans that would never have been made under normal circumstances were pushed
through because prices just kept going up, and banks could pass risky assets onto others. The same
dynamic could happen in carbon markets as unscrupulous intermediaries overpromise on offset projects,
selling future credits based on projects that do not yet exist, do not meet standards, or which simply do not
deliver promised greenhouse gas reductions. If that happened, those subprime carbon assets would collapse
in value, leaving investors holding the bag.
2. Riches for Wall Street, Questionable Environmental Results
While the world's largest carbon trading system, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) has not
produced its intended environmental results, one clear winner emerges when large carbon trading systems
are established: big banks.
At a time when financial firms are suffering, big banks are still making money from their commodity trading
desks. Carbon trading, especially if a global carbon market emerges, offers immense profit potential for
banks. They can earn lucrative fees brokering in over-the-counter trades, and if they bet the right way, their
proprietary trading desks can generate profits by gambling on carbon prices. Banks are also cashing in by
buying shares in carbon exchanges and offset development companies. Their investment banking and asset
management divisions are busy marketing carbon as a new "asset class" for large institutional investors and
developing financial products to sell to them.
In fact, there are so many ways that Wall Street can profit from this system that in the US, the financial 4industry has employed 130 climate change lobbyists just to influence climate legislation.
2.1 What Wall Street wants
Above all, big banks want large and liquid carbon markets, epitomized by a global carbon market. They argue that creating large and liquid markets is to allow markets to clear and to prevent a single trader from 5cornering the market. But in addition, higher volume markets obviously amount to more trades and
increased fee revenue for brokers and traders.
Banks also want unfettered access to offsets credits. Carbon offset trade associations naturally want “broad access 6to [both] domestic and international emission offsets.” In April 2008, the Carbon Markets and Investors Association (CIMA) went so far as to request that the European Union adopt an amendment to their 7Emissions Trading Scheme to replace auctioned allowances with CDM credits. Although carbon offset
credits run a relatively high risk of not delivering carbon reductions (potentially resulting in subprime
carbon), one of the key rationales for allowing an unlimited proportion of offsets is to keep costs low. But
clearly, large offset markets would also be more profitable for banks, which are building their offset
business and carbon trading desks, especially for carbon derivatives contracts.
Finally, banks want as little regulation as possible, which means resisting calls to push carbon trading onto exchanges and preserving the ability to trade over-the-counter. Traders and speculators thrive in a market
with price volatility, and strongly call for “full recourse to market-based risk management” tools for 8hedging, arguing that “OTC (derivatives) contracts will be needed for managing GHG price-risk under a 9cap and trade program.” Carbon trade associations acknowledge the role that exchanges can play, but they
also strongly advocate for a vigorous OTC market, as brokerage fees are likely to be higher for OTC deals.
4 Lavelle, Marianne, "An Army of Lobbyists Readies for Battle on the Climate Bill," Yale Environment 360, 16 March
2009 at http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2131 5 Letter from International Emissions Trading Association to Representative Henry Waxman et al, April 16, 2009 at
http://www.ieta.org/ieta/www/pages/getfile.php?docID=3274 6 Carbon Markets and Investors Association, “Market Design Principles,” at http://www.cmia.net/mdp.php 7 Carbon Markets and Investors Association, “Industry Body Calls for Amendment to ETS Draft Directive to Safe-Guard CDM Market,” at http://www.cmia.net/press_release.php 8 Letter from International Emissions Trading Association to Representative Henry Waxman et al, April 16, 2009 at
http://www.ieta.org/ieta/www.pages/getfile.php?docID=3274 and International Swaps and Derivatives Association, 2009
completed questionnaire to the Committee on Agriculture, U.S. House of Representatives, at
9 Letter from International Emissions Trading Association to Representative Henry Waxman et al, April 16, 2009 at
2.2 De-constructing the calls for liquidity, price discovery and risk transfer
In making their recommendations, Wall Street often invokes concepts that are almost sacrosanct in terms
of free market principles, but not necessarily as applicable or important in a carbon market, depending on
how it is constructed.
For example, market proponents argue that is imperative to ensure liquidity for market functioning.
Therefore, carbon markets should be interlinked and global, include as many sectors as possible under the
cap, allow a large proportion of financial speculators to participate in the market, and not burden them
investors with high margin requirements, etc. The call for liquidity is also logical in a system that relies
heavily on carbon offsets. However, in a “textbook” emissions market (no offsets, limited to covered
entities only), liquidity is actually designed to decrease as the emissions cap tightens. The argument that
liquidity is paramount only makes sense if the market is designed in other ways that Wall Street wants (e.g.
a large proportion of offsets). Leading carbon trading systems and proposals already offer companies a
range of different options, including borrowing and banking allowances, to cope with potential liquidity
Similarly, carbon trade associations maintain that price discovery is an essential market function, so policy makers should design a system with large secondary markets and vigorous amounts of speculation. For
example, in making recommendations to the EU, the IETA warned that governments could potentially
interfere with price discovery through auctions. They maintained that “Auctions should simply be a means
to place allowances in the carbon market …[they] are a powerful tool that may be used or abused [by
governments] to manipulate or manage the price of carbon; this will undercut the value of the market in 10setting an accurate price for carbon.” However, unlike other markets, the measure of carbon price accuracy is not whether it best reflects “what the market will bear” at the time; but rather, whether the
price is high, clear, and consistent enough to generate the intended environmental results.
Finally, carbon market proponents often point to the need to efficiently transfer risk to those investors who
are most able to handle it, an objective that can be best met through the creation of secondary and
derivatives markets. The objective of risk transfer has been so exalted that it has been used as an argument
against general derivatives regulations, such as position limits, exchange-based futures trading, and higher
margin requirements. It has even been argued that position limits are inefficient “because they limit the 11ability of speculators to absorb risks from [other] speculators.” 3. Conclusion
Proposals to make emissions trading units “fully fungible” (Ad Hoc Working Group On Long-Term Cooperative Action, Non-paper No. 42: Various approaches to enhance the cost-effectiveness of, and to promote, mitigation actions) are a
clear move towards creating a global carbon market. Carbon market proponents argue that creating a
global market will allocate capital to the most cost-effective emissions reductions.
However, linking trading schemes with different rules would instead encourage a “race to the bottom,”
with capital migrating towards those with the weakest environmental protections and the loosest caps.
Given the environmental ineffectiveness of carbon trading thus far, the quest to create a global market in
carbon may instead only enrich "Wall Street" banks while posing new systemic financial risks.
10 Presentation of Michela Beltracchi, European Policy Coordinator, International Emissions Trading Association
“IETA Recommendations for the Design of EUA Auctions,” Brussels, 11 April 2008 at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/climat/emission/pdf/080411/ieta_auctioning.pdf 11 Testimony of Craig Pirrong, Professor of finance, Bauer College of Business, The University of Houston, before
the House Committee on Agriculture, July 7, 2008 at http://agriculture.house.gov/testimony/110/h80710/pirrong.pdf