Many are wondering how and when carbon emissions will continue to be cut, in order to help ensure our environment is preserved and we combat the effects of climate change. Over the past few decades, the energy industry, regulators, and policymakers have been grappling with how to transition to a carbon emission-free world without unduly impacting jobs and economic growth. Throughout the recent presidential campaign, reducing carbon emissions was also a point of contention for the candidates, and it seems the newly sworn-in Biden administration will be focusing on this more than previous occupants of the White House have.
In addition to the United States, dozens of countries in Europe and Asia have made a pledge to be net zero by 2050. The crux of this pledge is that any greenhouse gas emissions emanating from their nations will be offset by reforestation initiatives or direct air capture. In order to achieve a net zero by 2050 carbon emission goal in the United States, the electric grid would have to expand dramatically with new solar, hydrogen, and other clean forms of energy to eliminate older carbon producing plants that use oil and coal. Forests and farms will also need to be able to capture more carbon emissions either through expansion or more efficient use of technology.
In the 2020s, work to replace old infrastructure and create new methods of producing energy is expected to create between 500,000 to one million new jobs. Importantly, many of these new jobs will replace roles that are no longer relevant at older energy producers, thus enabling a significant amount of people to remain in the same industry. Health benefits to this change include 100,000 premature deaths being prevented as a result of no longer using coal as a power source.
How companies, regulators, policymakers, and others will respond to the need to get to net zero by 2050 is an open question. It is likely that the new administration will work to pass legislation or create and implement regulations promoting the use of clean energy and encouraging sustainability efforts throughout the country. Internationally, a concerted effort for countries to establish a carbon emissions baseline is likely to continue as time goes on and we get to 2050. Finally, private sector companies will likely continue to drive innovations in sustainability given the relative prominence of the issue on Wall Street and some of the tax and cost savings available provide strong incentives to make changes to their carbon output structures.
Climate change and global warming have gone from a niche political issue 20 or more years ago to front and center topics, which impact a wide variety of industries and much of our public discourse. From the Green New Deal to other plans to combat the spread of climate change and other ecological impacts, a wide variety of solutions have been proposed to help reduce the economic impact of any plan that might constrain industry in addition to promoting Earth’s long-term well-being. For many, one of the more business or market-friendly solutions is a carbon pricing plan. Below, we’ll explore what it is, how it works, and what it means for industry going forward in uncertain economic times.
What is Carbon Pricing?
Carbon pricing is when carbon emissions themselves are calculated and a cost is associated with the emission. For example, carbon emissions are created when coal, natural gas, and oil are used to create energy. These energy sources, known as fossil fuels, create the carbon emissions which are primarily responsible, if not heavily contribute, to climate change. Proponents of carbon pricing argue that climate change, including rising sea levels and temperatures, is mainly caused by industries and activities which disproportionately produce these outputs, and, therefore these effects.
By working to assign a price to these carbon outputs, businesses will become more conscious of creating these outputs and will, in turn, find a way to create less of them. This burden shifting from those who have to deal with the impact of climate change and find a solution, namely government and taxpayers, to those who create the carbon outputs, energy producers and other industries, is just one goal of carbon pricing. The other goal is to help ensure that more climate-friendly technology will be introduced and used in the fight against climate change by businesses as they look to reduce their overall carbon usage.
How Do Carbon Pricing Plans Work?
The first way to implement a carbon pricing plan is through a plan which has received its fair share of news coverage and is commonly known as cap-and-trade. This system would impose a cap on the amount of carbon emissions that could be used in a year and use a market-based system so manufacturers, energy producers, or others could obtain more. For example, if 100 carbon units are divided among qualifying businesses in whole or in part, some businesses can pay others or go to an open market to bid on carbon units which help ensure they make their energy or production quota. This incentivizes many businesses to 1) invest in more efficient ways to produce their product or energy and 2) invest in more environmentally friendly ways for these actions to happen. This also helps reward energy efficient businesses by allowing them to sell their share of the carbon unit to recoup the cost of installing and investing in environmentally-friendly technology and eventually profiting from such a decision in the short or long term.
The second way to implement a carbon pricing plan is through a carbon tax. A much more straightforward way to implement a carbon pricing plan, the carbon tax would penalize those who use carbon more by taxing them more. The incentive for any carbon producer would thus be lowering their tax burden by investing in energy efficient and environmentally-friendly technology. Some have also proposed a rising carbon tax over time so even the largest firms are not immune from the direct cost of producing carbon without taking steps to improve their energy efficiency. Finally, there are several hybrid models that take both plans into account which have been proposed and may be workable.
What does this mean for energy producers and other carbon-heavy industries?
Many individuals and business leaders have been watching the evolution of the carbon pricing plan and the different proposals surrounding it with interest for what it could mean for both the economy and the environment. While there are many proposals under discussion at various levels of government, Congress has yet to pass a bill which would mandate a definitive carbon pricing plan scheme. For now, the national debate will continue as to the best way to implement a carbon pricing plan, if one is implemented at all.
From policy changes to changes in how individuals and businesses consume energy, below are just some of the changes that could happen in 2021 relevant to energy so you can be prepared.
Renewables will experience a resurgence
Due to the pandemic, some solar and wind projects were postponed as we learned how to live in the new normal. In 2021, we should expect to see a resumption of those projects, with some coming online this year leading to more renewable energy capacity likely approaching 2019 levels. Unfortunately, growth may still lag previously anticipated growth, so room for improvement in renewable energy growth will likely still be a priority into 2022.
Oil production will continue to decline throughout 2021
Due to the COVID-19 related lockdowns, the demand for oil dropped precipitously as individuals and businesses no longer used their cars, public transport, or airplanes to get to where they needed to be. This sharp decline for an already-battered oil industry does not look to be getting better, and production may not ramp up to pre-pandemic levels for the foreseeable future.
Liquified Natural Gas and Coal will feel 2021 impacts
Liquified natural gas will likely continue to be lower than pre-pandemic levels up until the second half of 2021. However, this is dependent on the industrial sector’s economic recovery, given that it is the primary driver of demand for liquefied natural gas. Similarly, demand for coal has followed a similar path due to the COVID-19 related economic slowdown that has plagued our world. If in 2021, there is increased electricity consumption and the use of natural gas increases to fuel the demand for more energy, it is likely that coal prices will increase as well.
Electric power generation may remain relatively low through 2021
Given continued economic uncertainty throughout various sectors, electric power generation may remain relatively low as businesses and industries scale up to meet potentially more demand if the COVID-19 vaccines enable a return to workplaces across the world. Additionally, the ability of the construction industry to add new capacity to power generation will play a role in if and how electric power generation is ramped up this year.
Global energy demand will continue to rise despite pandemic-related economic uncertainty
Leading the way on global energy demand, developing nations will continue to demand more energy as they bring power to places that were not connected or lacked sufficient power. Additionally, higher standards of living worldwide will increase the demand for consistent, reliable energy even if developed nations’ energy demands remain relatively stable or even decline.
What can we expect for 2021?
2021 promises to be a tumultuous and uncertain year for energy given the uncertainty surrounding an economic recovery and the speed at which the global population can get vaccinated against COVID-19. Given some governments’ vaccination targets, the second half of 2021 could be markedly more certain than the first.