Could a ‘Carbon Coin’ Save the Planet?
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Could a ‘Carbon Coin’ Save the Planet?

Australian civil engineer Delton Chen explains his idea for a new currency.

By SCOTT PATTERSON
Wed, Mar 9, 2022 4:07pmGrey Clock 4 min

In “The Ministry for the Future,” the 2020 climate-catastrophe novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, a new financial tool helps pull the world back from the edge of a global ecological meltdown: the carbon coin.

Backed by the world’s central banks, this new currency is deployed around the globe to pay fossil-fuel companies and petrostates to leave their reserves in the ground. It’s also used to reward businesses and individuals for sequestering carbon. By the end of Mr. Robinson’s book, the global economy is largely run on carbon coins, with projects around the world rapidly drawing carbon out of the atmosphere.

Mr. Robinson didn’t cook up the carbon-coin idea out of thin air. It’s the brainchild of Australian civil engineer Delton Chen. He’s the founder of the Global Carbon Reward initiative, which aims to create financial incentives to drive down carbon emissions.

While ambitious, the carbon-coin scheme remains far from seeing the light of day and would face fierce opposition from both the political and financial realms. In Mr. Robinson’s book, for instance, U.S. Federal Reserve officials express fears that the carbon coin could threaten the stability of the dollar, the world’s reserve currency.

Mr. Chen said that shouldn’t be a problem as the carbon currency, as he envisions it, couldn’t be used as a medium of exchange.

We recently caught up with Mr. Chen to ask him how it would work.

Most people are familiar with the idea of a carbon tax, which penalizes companies for consuming fossil fuels. Your idea, a carbon currency that provides tangible rewards for cutting carbon emissions or removing carbon from the atmosphere, is the reverse—a carrot instead of a stick.

The carbon currency is a new kind of carrot, and it’s the tool for what’s called a global carbon reward. It’s different from other carbon-pricing systems that economists have recommended. A “reward” is different from a typical subsidy, because the value of the reward will be managed with monetary policies [controlled by central banks]. Subsidies are managed with fiscal policies.

The great advantage of shifting to a monetary policy is that it has the potential to resolve a wide collection of very nasty socioeconomic problems, including the climate finance gap and the current lack of international cooperation.

From the perspective of businesses, the carbon currency will be a debt-free revenue source with a predictable value, but it will also require that each business that wants to earn the carbon currency must accept a long-term service-level agreement. The service-level agreement will ensure that one unit of the carbon currency is issued for one metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent that has been mitigated for the long-term, such as a 100-year duration.

How would the carbon currency be funded?

A very important distinction is that the carbon currency will not create any direct costs for governments, businesses or citizens. The costs will be covered by a globally coordinated central-bank guarantee. This guarantee will trigger private currency trading and investing in the carbon currency.

What are some specific examples of actions people or companies can take that will earn rewards?

First, by producing cleaner energy commodities. Second, by developing cleaner business models. Third, by removing carbon from the atmosphere.

The reward rules will be designed to encourage large energy companies and state-owned enterprises to decarbonize at the maximum rate that is technically feasible, and well ahead of the market demand for new clean energy.

One hypothetical example is a multinational energy company that decides to implement a comprehensive plan to switch to 100% renewable energy production and to retire its fossil energy reserves—for earning the reward.

Outside energy, what other economic sectors could take advantage of the carbon currency?

Reward rules can be developed for all sectors, including for small and medium-size businesses, and households—as long as the mitigation outcome is significant.

A hypothetical example might be a farm that transitions from animal meat production to producing vegetarian meat substitutes. The farm might combine agroforestry with soil carbon sequestration. If it is a community farm, especially in a developing country, then there are opportunities to provide co-benefits for communities and ecosystems.

Another avenue for earning the carbon currency is through lowering the carbon footprint of households.

Many companies—as well as countries—have already made pledges to reduce their carbon emissions to net zero in the next few decades. Would a carbon currency help accelerate the process?

Ideally, the value of the carbon currency will be calibrated to explicitly meet the Paris goals. In this way, the carbon currency can accelerate and guide the transition to global net-zero. Indeed, the carbon currency should become a permanent feature of the world economy.

There are two inherent limitations of existing pledges made by companies and countries. The first problem is that these pledges might not be backed by actionable plans and financial capital. The second problem is that for the companies and countries that set themselves very ambitious pledges, their motivation to reach those targets is compromised by other companies and countries that are continuing to benefit from the consumption of fossil fuels. This is sometimes described as the prisoner’s dilemma.

Do you see any downsides to the policy or significant hurdles to putting it in place?

I don’t see any significant downside. The new theory is posing a direct challenge to the standard theory for externalized costs. By proposing an explicit reward price for mitigated carbon, I’m asking economists to revise their conceptualization of the market failure. In other words, I’m proposing that a reward price—backed by central banks—is needed to address the systemic risk. The new policy is also more complex than standard policies, such as carbon taxes. It will require a more sophisticated approach to carbon accounting and monetary policy.

The main hurdle for advancing this policy is simply to find financial sponsorship to undertake the economic analysis and to complete a carbon-currency demonstration. When the policy is eventually examined by governments, I think many people will sit up and take notice because we are facing major systemic risks and we need a globally coordinated response.

When did the idea for the carbon reward come to you? You’re a civil engineer, not an economist.

I became curious about carbon pricing in late 2013. Back then I viewed the carbon-currency idea as having several useful attributes, but at that time I had no training in economics. So not surprising that it took me nearly eight years to develop the Global Carbon Reward policy. My goal was—and still is—to resolve every conundrum in climate-change economics with an interdisciplinary theory that’s compatible with neoclassical economics. I’m looking for a theory that’s consistent with sociology, ecology, biology, chemistry and physics. I think that I may have cracked this problem.



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Cocoa and Coffee Prices Have Surged. Climate Change Will Only Take Them Higher.

Some chocolatiers and coffee makers say they will have to pass on the extra cost to consumers

By JOSEPH HOPPE
Sat, Apr 13, 2024 5 min

Global prices for cocoa and coffee are surging as severe weather events hamper production in key regions, raising questions from farm to table over the long-term damage climate change could have on soft commodities.

Cultivating cocoa and coffee requires very specific temperature, water and soil conditions. Now, more frequent heat waves, heavy rainfalls and droughts are damaging harvests and crippling supplies amid ever growing demand from customers worldwide.

“Adverse weather conditions, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, have played an important role in sending several food commodities sharply higher,” said Ole Hansen , head of commodity strategy at Saxo Bank.

The spikes in prices are a threat to coffee and chocolate makers across the globe.

Swiss consumer-goods giant Nestlé was able to pass only a fraction of the cocoa price increase to customers last year, and it may need to adjust pricing in the future due to persistently high prices, a spokesperson said.

Italian coffee maker Lavazza reported revenue of more than $3 billion for last year, but said profitability was hit by soaring coffee bean prices, particularly for green and Robusta coffee, and its decision to limit price increases.

Likewise, chocolatier Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Spruengli said in its 2023 results that weather and climate conditions played a major role in the global shortage of cocoa beans that led to historically high prices. The company had to lift the sales prices of its products and said it would need to further raise them this year and next if cocoa prices remain at current levels.

Hershey ’s chief executive, Michele Buck , said in February that historic cocoa prices are expected to limit earnings growth this year, and that the company plans to use “every tool in its toolbox,” including price hikes, to manage the impact on business.

In West Africa, where about 70% of global cocoa is produced, powerhouses Ivory Coast and Ghana are facing catastrophic harvests this season as El Niño—the pattern of above-average sea surface temperatures—led to unseasonal heavy rainfalls followed by strong heat waves.

Extreme heat has weakened cocoa trees already damaged from heavy rainfall at the end of last year, according to Morningstar DBRS’s Aarti Magan and Moritz Steinbauer. The rain also worsened road conditions, disrupting cocoa bean deliveries to export ports.

The International Cocoa Organization—a global body composed of cocoa producing and consuming member countries—said in its latest monthly report that it expects the global supply deficit to widen to 374,000 metric tons in the 2023-24 season, from 74,000 tons last season. Global cocoa supply is anticipated to decline by almost 11% to 4.449 million tons when compared with 2022-23.

“Significant declines in production are expected from the top producing countries as they are envisaged to feel the detrimental effect of unfavorable weather conditions and diseases,” the organization said.

While the effects of climate change are severe, other serious structural issues are also hitting West African cocoa production in the short- to medium-term. Illegal mining poses a significant threat to cocoa farms in Ghana, destroying arable land and poisoning water supplies, and the problem is becoming increasingly relevant in the Ivory Coast, according to BMI.

The issues are being magnified by deforestation carried out to increase cocoa production. Since 1950, Ivory Coast has lost around 90% of its forests, while Ghana has lost around 65% over the same period. This has driven farmers to areas less suited to cocoa cultivation like grasslands, increasing the amount of labor required and bringing further downside risks to the harvest, the research firm said.

The Ivory Coast’s cocoa mid-crop harvest—which officially starts in April and runs until September—is expected to fall to 400,000-500,000 tons from 600,000-620,000 tons last year, with weather expected to play a crucial role in shaping the market balance for the season, ING analysts said, citing estimates from the country’s cocoa regulator. Ghana’s cocoa board also forecasts a slump in the harvest for this season to as low as 422,500 tons, the poorest in more than 20 years, according to BMI.

Neither regulator responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, extreme droughts in Southeast Asia—particularly in Vietnam and Indonesia—are resulting in lower coffee bean harvests, hurting producers’ output and global exports. Coffee inventories have recovered somewhat in recent weeks but remain low in recent historical terms. Robusta coffee has seen a severe deterioration in export expectations, while Arabica coffee is expected to return to a relatively narrow surplus this year, said Charles Hart, senior commodities analyst at BMI.

The global coffee benchmark prices, London Robusta futures, are up by 15% on-month to $3,825 a ton. Arabica coffee prices have also surged 17% over the last month to $2.16 a pound in lockstep with Robusta—its highest level since October 2022. Cocoa prices have more than tripled on-year over these supply crunch fears, and risen 49% in the last month alone to $10,050 a ton.

“Cocoa trees are particularly sensitive to weather and require very specific conditions to grow, this means that cocoa prices are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as drought and periods of intense heat, as well as the longer-term impact of climate change,” said Lucrezia Cogliati, associate commodities analyst at BMI.

Cogliati said global cocoa consumption is expected to outpace production for the third consecutive season, with intense seasonal West African winds and plant diseases contributing to significant declines.

Consumers hoping for a return to cheaper prices for life’s little luxuries in the midterm may also be in for a bitter surprise.

“There is no sugarcoating it—consumers will ultimately be faced with higher chocolate prices, products that contain less chocolate, and/or shrinking product sizes,” Morningstar’s Magan and Steinbauer said in a report.

“We anticipate consumers could respond by searching widely for promotional discounts, trading down to value-based chocolate and confectionary products from premium products, switching to private-label from branded products and/or reducing volumes altogether.”

The record-breaking rally for cocoa and coffee is likely more than just a flash in the pan, according to Citi analysts, as adverse weather conditions and strong demand trends are likely to support prices in the months ahead. The U.S. bank estimates Arabica coffee futures in a range of $1.88-$2.15 a pound for the current year, but said projections could be lifted if the outlook for 2024-25 tightens further.

At the heart of it all, climate change is set to play a major role, as the impact of extreme weather events could exacerbate the pressure on cocoa and coffee supplies, according to market watchers.

“I don’t expect prices to remain at these levels, but if we continue to see more unusual weather as a result of global warming then we certainly could see more volatility in terms of cocoa yields going forward, which could impact pricing,” said Paul Joules, commodities analyst at Rabobank.

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