Carbon prices globally were on a tear in 2021. There was much conviction around global action to fight climate change following the election of the Biden administration, continued strong climate leadership across the UK and Western Europe and of course excitement pre and post COP26. This dynamic saw European carbon credit prices rally from circa €50 in mid 2020 to almost €100 by the end of 2021. Prices pulled back substantially with the war in Ukraine, but have retraced 50% of their losses.
Australian Carbon Credit Unit (ACCU) prices, started 2021 much lower than international carbon credit prices at around A$17. Despite the lack of near-term ambition in Australia’s COP26 pledges, ACCUs have also been on a rocket ship, rising from the teens to more than $50 over the course of 2021 (see chart below).
be granted ACCUs for the carbon abatement it achieves over the project life (often 10 or 20 years). Depending on the project method, ACCUs can start being generated shortly after registration or otherwise need to wait for measurement of how much carbon has been sequestered, before ACCUs are generated.
The largest participant in the ACCU market is the government via the Emissions Reductions Fund (ERF). Between 2017 and 2021 the ERF has undertaken 13 auctions to buy 209m ACCUs from 509 distinct projects at prices between $10 and $17 per tonne. That is a cumulative commitment of circa $2bn.
In early auctions, all ERF contracts were fixed delivery contracts. That is, there was a binding obligation on the project to deliver the ACCUs – even if ACCU prices had risen above the contract price. More recently, bidders at the ERF auction had the choice of electing between a fixed delivery contract and an optional delivery contract. The optional delivery contract was effectively a put option – that is, if spot ACCU prices were higher – the project had the option to not sell to the ERF and capture the higher spot price. However, because this option had only been introduced recently the vast majority of the ERF contracts are fixed delivery contracts (see chart below).
The net of all this, is that while the ACCU market is quite large, currently almost 1,000 projects and 200 million tonnes of sequestration over the next 20 years, the volume of freely tradable ACCUs at a particular point in time is actually quite small. In financial market terms, this is a market with very low free float!
For example, the chart below shows the creation and surrender activity for ACCUs in 2021. The total supply of ACCUs, including those from prior years, was 25 million tonnes (tiny compared to Australia’s emissions of 500 million tonnes). Demand for ACCUs for surrender through bilateral trade was less than 15 million tonnes – dominated by ERF delivery obligations.
What this chart doesn’t capture is demand for ACCUs for investment/speculation purposes. That is, acquiring ACCUs today for the purpose of surrendering them later (when ACCU prices might be higher). According to RenewEconomy, for the last three years the volume on the secondary market has been between 3.8 and 6 million ACCUs annually. A relatively small shift in speculative activity, or perhaps only $50m of capital value, could completely shift market dynamics, shifting the market in 2021 from one of oversupply (and where voluntary demand could be easily met from uncontracted supply), to one where there was stiff competition to access the small number of uncontracted or optional delivery ERF contract ACCUs.
This has radically changed in March 2022, when the Federal Government announced a change in policy to allow project owners with flexibility to exit their ‘fixed delivery’ carbon abatement contracts (CACs) under the Emissions Reduction Fund.
This announcement reduced the ACCU price by 38% overnight.
Under this arrangement suppliers to the ERF will pay the agreed price to the ERF plus a break fee of $12.50. The ERF price varies from auction to auction, but in approximate terms this would equate to a break cost of $22-$29.
Recent ACCU prices have reflected this massive shift in supply demand dynamics – as we go to print the price has settled at $31 (a fall from $57 in January). Thus, the market seems to have settled at a price that is reflective of break cost for the additional new supply with a relatively small additional premium.
The price of ACCUs is also likely to remain subdued for the foreseeable future. As carbon market analysts RepuTex recently pointed out, in the next three months 7m ACCUs could be released from ERF contracts, and up to 112m by 2033. Given the secondary market has hovered around 5m ACCUs traded annually for the last 3 years – the ERF releases can easily swamp the market.
So why did the Federal Government intervene – the rationale put the public was that it would "increase liquidity, allow project proponents to take advantage of higher private market prices and ensure equitable treatment" (Source: ABC, Mister for Energy and Emissions Reduction).
But is market intervention the right path?
It depends which side of the fence you sit on. The market should settle at a price of the lowest cost marginal new supplier of credits, but in a highly constrained market, the price will inevitably be volatile and that’s what we saw late last year/early this year.
The winners from the Federal Government’s decision are going to be emitters, traders, and legacy ERF auction winners with fixed delivery contracts. The losers will be unhedged speculators, and project owners that either had no ERF contract or optional delivery contracts – they’ve seen the value of their projects eviscerated.
This all comes at a time when we need convergence in carbon credit markets globally. Climate change is a global problem – it doesn’t matter where CO2 emission reduction occurs – they just needs to happen, and of course, preferably at the lowest cost. Globally, regulators need to be strengthening and giving confidence in markets, allowing for tradability (across markets), improving liquidity and price discovery.
Arguably the projects that have been bid into the ERF process are the easiest, least cost projects. From here it only gets harder. The IPC models rely heavily on carbon sequestration to get to net zero by 2050 (as does the Federal Government’s net-zero by 2050 strategy). By their nature, carbon sequestration projects (natural or mechanical) are all long-life, high upfront cost projects, and I don’t need to lecture this readership group on the importance of policy stability and investor confidence as it relates to long term revenues to support these projects. Price signals and market confidence are critical.
So we at Infradebt see the Government’s intervention as hindering rather than helping, they may have alleviated a perceived short-term squeeze, but sent a range of bad signals to the market about the risks of bringing on new supply and the cost of continued pollution for emitters. For Australia – annually we emit 500m tonnes of CO2, renewables will put a dent in the problem, but to get to net zero will require extensive use of carbon sequestration to decarbonise the economy as we transition. One could also view carbon sequestration as a huge opportunity for Australia – natural projects require land and mechanical projects require vast sums of low-cost renewable energy. But for the opportunity to be executable we need a viable, defensible, liquid carbon credit market.