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Why is the business world suddenly clamouring for a global carbon tax?

Even oil and gas companies have now started calling for a global carbon tax. Reuters/Stephane Mahe

Why is the business world suddenly clamouring for a global carbon tax?

Even oil and gas companies have now started calling for a global carbon tax. Reuters/Stephane Mahe

Among the various interests at the Paris climate talks, it is arguably the voice of business that has emerged most clearly. Many business leaders are now saying that if the world is intent on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there must be a worldwide price on carbon and a framework for linking the 55 schemes that exist in areas such as China, the European Union, and California.

Momentum has been building since May, when six of Europe’s largest oil and gas companies, including Royal Dutch Shell and BP, issued a letter calling for global carbon pricing system. That month, leaders from 59 international companies also signed a statement calling for carbon pricing to feature in the Paris agreement.

Advocacy has continued during the Paris negotiations. For example, Patrick Pouyanné, chief executive of French oil and gas giant Total, argued that the shift from coal to gas “will not happen without a carbon price”. He suggested that a price of US$20-$50 in Europe was required (well above the current price).

Oleg Deripaska, president of the world’s largest aluminium producer Rusal, put the issue in stronger terms, describing the idea of voluntary national emissions commitments (upon which the Paris agreement largely hinges) as “balderdash”.

Asked what success would look like from the Paris negotiations, Deripaska replied:

A success [for most people] would be lunch at a nice French banquette with foie gras and oysters. But no, seriously, it is carbon tax or die.

Carbon tax on the menu?

It is not clear whether a carbon price will figure in the Paris agreement. But it is important to consider what is motivating some of the world’s highest-emitting companies to advocate for a carbon price. And what other, perhaps more intrusive plans for tackling climate change would be taken off the table?

Businesses have a stronger presence at COP21 than at any previous climate negotiation. They know which way the wind is blowing and realise that governments might require painful and complex interventions to reduce emissions. Moves are afoot to decarbonise the world economy some time after 2050 (see Article 3 of the latest draft text, and there has been strong advocacy for a moratorium on new coal mines.

Helge Lund, chief executive of British oil multinational BG Group, argues that a carbon price reduces government intervention and attempts at “pick[ing] winners in terms of energy technologies.” Instead, he argues: “the market will dictate the most efficient solution”.

Forecasts from the International Energy Agency suggest that fossil fuels (including coal) will provide the bulk of energy demand for developing countries going into the future. Companies intend to meet that demand. Thus, Shell can simultaneously advocate putting a price on carbon and make plans to drill in the Arctic where production will not begin until 2030.

While that might sound perverse, there is actually nothing inconsistent about those two positions.

One way for energy companies to maintain economic growth in a carbon-priced economy is to shift investments gradually away from coal and oil, and towards gas. That is why Shell has paid US$70 billion for the BG Group.

Of course gas might come under similar pressure in time, but as the Financial Times has reported:

…oil companies’ skills and assets mean that finding and extracting gas is a short and natural step. Moving into renewable energy is a much bigger leap.

This can be seen in the many examples where energy companies have struggled to develop other forms of energy, such as BP’s ill-starred attempt to brand itself as “beyond petroleum” and invest US$8 billion over ten years in renewable energy. The company has since backtracked on that goal, has left the solar market, and has no plans to expand its onshore wind investments.

Beyond markets

Of the 185 countries that have submitted climate targets ahead of the Paris talks, more than 80 have referenced market mechanisms.

Clearly, a price on carbon is going to play a role in attempts to tackle climate change. This is a good thing but it is not sufficient and must not become a distraction from other serious interventions.

Recent research confirms that we do not have time to wait for energy companies to transition at their own pace from fossil fuels to renewable energy. For example, last week Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research published a paper in Nature Geoscience which argued:

The carbon budgets associated with a 2℃ threshold demand profound changes to the consumption and production of energy … the IPCC’s 1,000 gigatonne budget requires an end to all carbon emissions from energy systems by 2050.

A carbon budget consistent with 2℃ (let alone 1.5℃) requires a dramatic reversal in energy consumption and emissions growth. Governments should treat overtures from business with caution, even if businesses are making the right moves. They need to ensure that these moves are made at a speed that suits the climate, rather than just business.

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