US Carbon Trading Shuts Down, While Other Nations Step In To Fill the Void

Chicago Factory

via Flickr/ Senor Codo

America's only nationwide carbon trading market will shut its doors next month, a tacit acknowledegment that Republican gains in Congress spell doom for any sort of federal greenhouse gas regulations. But other countries — even mega-polluter China — are ready to fill the void.

Since 2003, the Chicago Climate Exchange, North America's only cap and trade system for all six greenhouse gases, has operated a voluntary trading network where companies can set targets for annual emissions of carbon dioxide. Those that meet or exceed their targets can sell surplus carbon credits to companies that fall short. Firms like Ford, Bank of America, IBM and Intel signed up, according to the Financial Times. It was always voluntary, but the exchange operated with the expectation that carbon trading would one day be mandatory. "Clean" companies stood to reap major rewards.

Not everyone agrees that cap-and-trade is an effective means to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — some environmentalists favor a tax system instead, while cap-and-trade critics say it will lead to higher energy costs and do little to reduce pollution.

But last spring, the World Bank estimated a worldwide carbon market was worth $144 billion, even amid the crippling recession. Under the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, the biggest exchange in the world (and a mandatory one), $118 billion changed hands in 2009, according to the bank. The Chicago exchange's founder has said carbon trading could be a $10 trillion market one day. Whether these numbers hold up is now a question for other countries.

The U.S. Senate never passed cap-and-trade legislation last summer, and the effort died in the House of Representatives. Participants figured there was no point in trading carbon credits without a legal requirement to do so, according to Jeff Sprecher, CEO of the company that owns the Chicago exchange.

Other countries are more bullish, however. China announced this summer it would begin a domestic carbon trading program next year, aiming to meet 2020 carbon emission goals, according to the state-run China Daily. And just this week, officials in Kenya and Indonesia both announced carbon trading initiatives.

The new Nairobi Climate Exchange will be the first of its kind in Africa and will facilitate trading of carbon credits for other African nations, reports Business Daily Africa. The exchange will help finance renewable energy research and afforestation programs.

In Indonesia, the Jakarta Futures Exchange is mulling the possibility of setting up a carbon trading program, Reuters reported. Indonesian companies can already earn carbon offsets through the United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism, which allows investors in rich nations to fund clean-energy projects in developing nations. But officials think a carbon trading program could be lucrative, according to Reuters.

Finally, European officials are considering continent-wide plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which could inject even more capital into a carbon-trading exchange. The European Union's energy commissioner, Guenther Oettinger, said Nov. 10 that Europe needs a unified energy network, rather than the current system modeled after "19th century dukedoms." Oettinger is calling for $1.38 trillion to improve efficiency and further reduce pollution, so a carbon trading system could reap even greater rewards.

From a purely business standpoint, U.S. investment firms stand to lose on this one. Whatever you think about climate change, there's money to be made here — the future of greenhouse gas reduction programs looks promising. But, apparently, not in this country.