December 16, 2008

What to Watch in 2009: Carbon Credits Are a Hot “Commodity”

Posted on December 16, 2008 by Michèle Corash

2009 promises a fascinating year, in which carbon emissions – the newest environmental commodity – will continue to influence both world markets and world politics. The performance of the carbon market, and the emergence of new regulatory schemes to cap carbon, particularly in the U.S., is sure to be closely watched by many politicians, environmentalists, and players in the burgeoning carbon trading industry. While the carbon market’s outlook is healthy, how the U.S. enters it – whether it can find the political will for a national cap-and-trade system, and ensure that carbon emissions receive favorable domestic tax treatment – could mean the difference between the limelight or a bit part for the global carbon show.

Carbon emissions markets: strong value, strong growth 

Despite the global economic tumult, recent reports by carbon market watchers such as New Carbon Finance[1] predict that the total value of carbon market trades will reach $116 billion by the end of 2008. This reflects a rise in both the volume of carbon emissions transacted (expected to grow 31% in 2008), and the value of carbon emission credits (projected to rise by 80% this year). What’s more, the carbon market compares well to other commodity markets: private investments in carbon funds represented 3.2% of all private commodity investments at the end of 2007.

The continued growth in value is linked to high prices for the two basic types of carbon commodities: European Union Allowances (EUAs), and Certified Emission Reductions (CERs). EUAs are the basic carbon emission unit currently traded in the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (EU ETS). EUAs account for 79% of all carbon trades, and their value has averaged $34 per ton through 2008.[2] For their part, CER trades represent 17% of the transacted value in the carbon market through October 2008.   

Momentum building in the United States for federal cap and trade

The widely anticipated initiation of a federal cap and trade system in the U.S., as has been openly called for by the incoming Obama administration, as well as many business and industry leaders, is expected to increase the volume and value of the carbon market exponentially. With the entry of the U.S., the global market could top $3 trillion by 2020. The strength of cap-and-trade, though, lies in its design, and the features built into a U.S. program in the coming months will be driven as much by recession-era politics as by tested economics and sound science.

Nevertheless, Obama’s environmental appointments are already writing “cap and trade” on the wall. Lisa Jackson, picked by President-elect Obama to head the Environmental Protection Agency, is board vice-president of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative,[3]a consortium of ten states whose mandatory cap and trade system will hold its second allowances auction[4] on December 17, 2008. Within the White House itself, Carol Browner, an advocate of regulating carbon emissions who headed the EPA during the Clinton administration, is returning to a top federal environmental job with her appointment as Obama’s “climate czar.” 

Meanwhile, it may be up to Steven Chu,[5] Nobel prize-winning director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and energy secretary nominee, to build bridges between climate scientists and those (including a sizable minority of members of Congress) who still believe that climate change is mostly a theory. Chu is being hailed[6] as a scientist, rather than a political appointee, in a position that could deeply affect the U.S.’s transition to a less carbon-intensive economy. Chu may use his position to subsidize more practically-applicable research into alternative energy forms. But at least as important will be his role in the politics of addressing climate change, where skepticism, fear of adverse economic impacts, and firmly rooted consumption habits are major challenges.

Where there is potential for profit, there is also potential for taxes

Without a carbon cap and trade program in place, questions still revolve around the nature of this new “commodity” and how it will be treated under the law. Considering the only certainties are death and taxes, it is safe to assume that even carbon credits will receive a visit from the tax man. So far, no statutory provisions or IRS authority have yet issued on the federal income tax treatment of the carbon credits. Gain or loss from the sale of the carbon credits, and amounts spent to acquire the carbon credits, is as yet undefined for federal income tax purposes.

Some predictions are possible, though. Under the sulfur dioxide emissions trading program[7] of the 1990 Clean Air Act, the IRS ruled[8] that the allocation of sulfur dioxide emissions credits do not result in gross income to electric utilities when issued. More recently, the IRS addressed the federal income tax treatment of gain from the sale of excess foreign carbon credits granted under the EU ETS. A June 2008 ruling held that because they were intangible property used in the foreign corporation’s trade or business, gain from the sale of surplus carbon credits did not constitute “foreign personal holding company income” for purposes of the “controlled foreign corporation” rules of the Internal Revenue Code [9].  Apart from the caveat that the features of a federal program in the U.S. may differ from the EU ETS, this strongly suggests that carbon credits under a cap and trade program may be treated as intangible assets, giving rise to capital gain or loss rather than ordinary income or loss. If the projected trillion dollar market is realized, then the potential tax revenue will be, needless to say, worth watching.

With the specter of a multi-trillion dollar market, an ideological reversal in Washington, and the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol on the horizon, this new carbon commodity inevitably will become ensnared in the continuing debates over economic recovery. Regardless of the science, greenhouse gases will undoubtedly have an impact on 2009. 

This article was written by William Sloan and Rachel Peterson of Morrison & Foerster LLP’s Cleantech practice group. 

[1] Research by New Carbon Finance, at

[2] One EUA represents one ton of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions; each of the 12,000 facilities that fall within the cap and trade system has been assigned an emissions cap, and must submit that number of allowances by the end of 2012. At the market’s most basic level, facilities whose emissions exceed the cap are trying to buy EUAs, and those whose emissions fall below it have EUAs to sell.




[6] See


[8] Revenue Ruling 92-16, 1992-1 C.B. 13; see also Revenue Procedure 92-91, 1992-2 C.B. 503.

[9] Private Letter Ruling 200825009 (June 20, 2008).

Tags: Renewable

Energy | Renewable

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