Betting on climate change with carbon derivatives


This week in Barcelona negotiators are making one more attempt to resolve some of many differences for a new agreement to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). There are three UNFCC “flexibility mechanisms” intended to enable countries to meet their Greenhouse Gas (GHG) reduction commitments. One mechanism is the buying and selling of “carbon allowances,” i.e., permits to pollute, and “carbon offset credits,” largely based on agricultural or forestry projects to reduce or avoid GHG emissions. Industrialized countries claim that Article 17 of the Kyoto Protocol authorizes them to extend the primary carbon trading market into the world of financial derivatives.

As part of IATP’s preparations for the UNFCC summit, December 6-18 in Copenhagen, Denmark, as a member of the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition (CMOC), we helped to draft and signed an October 30 letter to Senators John Kerry and Barbara Boxer. The CMOC does not take a position on the overall Senate energy and climate change bill. Instead the letter outlines dangers that the carbon derivatives market poses to the realization of U.S. GHG reduction goals. The letter notes that Congress has yet to agree to fundamental reforms to the financial and commodity derivatives markets in which carbon derivatives would be traded. Indeed, there is strong opposition to most of these reforms from the financial services industry, which has created new loopholes in draft legislation that could induce extreme price volatility in derivatives markets, including that for carbon. Volatile and confusing carbon price signals would delay and inhibit investments in GHG reduction technology. Such investment delay would be a global warming accelerant.

To reduce the likelihood of extreme carbon price volatility, the CMOC letter calls for mandatory exchange trading-in other words, no more trading in the shadow banking markets. This demand is strongly opposed by the Coalition of Derivatives End Users, who claimed in anOctober 2 letter, that being forced to post the margin requirements to trade on exchanges would harm their economic interests. Most of the signatories to the letter-which originated when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, acting on behalf of the taxpayer, bailed out  “too big to fail” banks-will be trading carbon derivatives.

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.

The CMOC letter also calls for banning commodity index funds and exchange-traded funds from trading carbon derivatives. In a November 2008 paper, IATP showed how the bundling of agricultural futures contracts into index funds was partly responsible for the extreme price volatility in agricultural futures contracts. The role of index funds in driving price volatility was confirmed in a June 24 U.S. Senate investigation of excessive speculation in wheat contracts. This price volatility made the use of futures contracts by both U.S. farmers and developing country importers too expensive and unpredictable. The price increases contributed to food riots in more than 30 countries, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Finally, the CMOC letter called on Congress to commission studies on the effects of a carbon derivatives market on agricultural, energy and other non-agricultural futures contracts. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) estimates that by 2017, the carbon derivatives market will trade $2 trillion in contracts. In 2008, the estimated value of all CFTC regulated contracts was $4-5 trillion dollars. No climate change bill should be passed before Congress has had time to review studies on carbon derivatives price volatility and the effect of carbon derivatives on other futures contracts, including contracts where carbon is bought to offset financial risks in the deregulated world of “mixed swaps” (i.e., with both security and commodity features).