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Following the Money in Copenhagen

Climate Watch Blog

December 18, 2009BY Mark Schapiro
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I'm sure there will be a flood of reactions to the "agreement" reached today, which made things pretty quiet and tense in the press center. People were hunched over computers talking in multiple languages, first trying to interpret President Obama's speech -- "hugely disappointing" seemed to be the main reaction -- then following the last-minute back-room bargaining he was engaged in to salvage a deal. 

But I'm going to go against this wave and continue following the aggressive push here toward carbon markets and the debate over how to regulate them.

This is where the only real money lies at this point, anyway.

During these past two weeks, the Crowne Plaza hotel has been temporary home to the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), which represents global banks, brokerage firms, commodity traders and energy companies at the apex of moving billions of dollars through the global carbon markets. 

The buying and selling of so-called carbon "offsets" is now the fastest growing commodity market on earth. Worth practically zero in 2005, the market transacted $150 billion last year; and that number is expected to explode into the trillions once the U.S. passes its own emission limits next year. 

With genuine fears about the economic consequences of a market growing this big this fast, traders at a panel on Thursday were grappling with how much regulation was appropriate as carbon emerges as the epitome of the 21st century commodity.

Carbon is becoming much like any other commodity but with one key distinction: It is designed not to be delivered (like oil or gold) but to be eliminated, presenting an array of potential regulatory challenges.

Not surprisingly, there was consensus among the panelists, which included a member of the IETA, an executive with EurEx, a German commodity exchange that opened a carbon trading facility in Chicago last year; and a policy expert with the investment bank, JP Morgan. 

Carbon is becoming much like any other commodity but with one key distinction: It is designed not to be delivered (like oil or gold) but to be eliminated, presenting an array of potential regulatory challenges. 

David Hunter, the IETA's director for U.S. policy said the group was firmly against a federal cap and trade bill introduced by Senators Collins (R-ME) and Stabenow (D-MI). Measures in the bill want to avoid some of the highly speculative investments that have driven Europe's carbon market, which is regulated under provisions of the Kyoto treaty.

The U.S. bill proposes to cut out middlemen and to strictly limit trading activity between those industries that have emission credits and those industries that needthem.

Hunter disputes some of the biggest conerns the bill is designed to address -- chiefly that the market is growing so rapidly it could quickly devolve into the bubble-and-bust scenario that kicked off the global economic crisis two years ago, and that the market could be exposed to the same manipulations the electricity industry went through in the 1990s.

"Nothing like that could happen in the carbon markets," Hunter told me, "because carbon [commodities] are just a piece of paper." 

He is right in the fact that, unlike other commodities, no physical commodity is ever actually delivered. Instead, it is an unorthodox financial instrument containing a promise not to emit greenhouse gases. 

Richard Folland, a senior climate change and energy adviser at J.P. Morgan, now one of the world's largest carbon trading firms after buying British carbon brokers Eco Securities last fall, argued that minimal regulations are necessary but that overly intrusive regulations could end up "diminishing liquidity." And contrary to fears, he said, expanding the number of "market actors" would make the market more difficult to manipulate not less. 

Overall, the discussion provided a stark contrast to the main emissions negotiations at the Bella Center. No matter how today's non-binding agreement is received and changes things, the carbon markets will continue to grow at an exponential rate. 

Inside Bella there was abundant talk about the growing cataclysmic symptoms of global warming, and much dodging around money. At the Crowne Plaza, there was much talk about money, and barely a reference to reducing the world's greenhouse gas emissions.