ECONOMISTS have long argued that the most efficient way to curb global warming is to put a price on the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause it. A total of 41 OECD and G20 governments have announced either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme, or both. Add state and local schemes, and they cover 15% of the world’s emissions, up from 4% in 2010. Voters concerned about climate change are egging them on. So, too, are corporate bosses. More firms are imposing such pricing on themselves, even in places where policymakers are dragging their feet.
Of the 6,100-odd firms which report climate-related data to CDP, a British watchdog, 607 now claim to use “internal carbon prices”. The number has quadrupled since CDP first began posing the query in its annual questionnaire three years ago. Another 782 companies say they will introduce similar measures within two years. Total annual revenues of these 1,389 carbon-price champions amount to a hefty $7trn. Most come from rich countries, but more developing-world firms are joining them.
Corporate carbon-pricing comes in two main varieties. The first involves business units paying a fee into a central pot based on their carbon footprint. Microsoft, for example, charges all departments for every kilowatt-hour of dirty energy they contract or air mile flown by executives, to help meet firm-wide climate targets. This payment, equivalent to $8 per ton of carbon dioxide, is designed to encourage those who can cut emissions most easily to do more, and nudge everyone to do something, says Rob Bernard, who oversees the software giant’s environmental activities.
Tracking exactly how much of the power a business unit consumes comes from coal, say, is not always straightforward. Fee-based systems like Microsoft’s therefore remain rare. Although some smaller firms have toyed with them, Disney is the only other big multinational to use one. Many more firms use shadow carbon prices to stress-test investments for a world of government-mandated levies.
Investors increasingly demand that companies take that possibility seriously—81 countries mention a carbon cost in their national pledges to limit global warming under the Paris climate agreement of 2015. Plenty of the Paris promises remain just that for now, but bosses ignore them at their peril, cautions Feike Sijbesma, who co-chairs the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, which groups green-minded governments and businesses under the auspices of the World Bank.
In his day job as chief executive of Royal DSM, Mr Sijbesma has made the Dutch food producer examine all proposed ventures to check whether the sums still add up if a ton of carbon dioxide cost €50 ($60), well above the going rate of €6 or so in the European Union’s emissions-trading system, which is kept low by an oversupply of permits. Where they do not, alternative feedstocks or cleaner energy suppliers must be found. If a project still looks unprofitable, it could be discarded altogether.
Businesses ranging from European supermarkets (France’s Carrefour and Britain’s Sainsbury’s) to Indian cement-makers (ACC, Ambuja and Dalmia) espouse shadow pricing. Some add flourishes. Besides assessing capital projects at €30 per ton of carbon dioxide, Saint-Gobain, a French maker of building materials, factors in a higher price of €100 per ton when choosing between long-term research-and-development projects. AkzoNobel, a Dutch chemicals giant, uses €50 per ton for most investments, but double that for those with lifetimes of 30 years or more.
These are some of the most ambitious schemes; many others lack bite. Plenty of firms which declare their shadow prices set them below $10 per ton of carbon dioxide. As John Ward of Vivid Economics, a consultancy, points out, that is “just high enough so it has no real impact”. Companies which use higher prices should treat them as more than a “spreadsheet exercise”, counsels one climate-change expert. Oil majors have priced in carbon for years when assessing exploration projects. But there is little evidence that high-price scenarios swayed their investment decisions.
Nevertheless, the trend for firms to incorporate carbon pricing is welcome. Some of the less impressive schemes could in time come to resemble Microsoft’s or Royal DSM’s meatier ones. Such voluntary steps will not stop the planet sizzling. But they help firms prepare for when governments do bring in pricing schemes. In December China launched a market for trading carbon emissions which is the world’s largest. The clearest sign of progress would be for similar policies elsewhere to render internal exercises redundant.