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Carbon border adjustments being considered in Australia

Australia’s Climate Change Minister announced plans this week to look at a potential carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM). Chris Bowen told an Australian Business Economists forum in Sydney that policies were needed to ensure a level playing field for Australian firms. Mentioning the European Union’s (EU) CBAM by name, he said that his department would prepare a review to assess carbon leakage risks, develop policy options and look at the feasibility of an Australian CBAM, particularly in relation to steel and cement.

The Antipodean nation has past form when it comes to carbon legislation. Back in 2012 it introduced the Clean Energy Act under the Gillard administration. The legislation was intended to introduce an emissions trading scheme with a carbon pricing scheme. However, it faced opposition from rival political parties and the Cement Industry Federation warned that the local cement sector was vulnerable to overseas competitors outside of the scheme. Job losses followed and Adelaide Brighton appeared to react by focusing more on imports. The Abbott administration then abolished the act in 2014 putting forward its Clean Energy Future package instead, which focused more on investing towards change. Jump forward nearly a decade and the Albanese government passed its Climate Change Bill in 2022. This set legally binding targets, including a commitment to cut CO2 emissions by 43% from 2005 levels by 2030. Bowen’s look at a CBAM is an obvious next step from here, addressing one of the main criticisms of the previous Clean Energy Act.

Local building materials company Boral reacted positively to a CBAM in its annual results released earlier this week with chief executive officer Vik Bansal saying that the company was “…advocating for an effective Carbon Border Adjusted Mechanism for Australia.” He also reconfirmed the group’s commitment to a target of net zero emissions by 2050. However, at the same time, Boral also reduced its emissions reduction target to 2025 from 2019 figures to up to 14% from 19% previously. This was blamed on “external factors” such as delays in securing the required regulatory approvals for the next phases of an alternative fuel program. Mining company Rio Tinto also warned in late July 2023, as part of its half-year financial results, that it might potentially miss its emissions target for 2025 unless it resorted to buying carbon credits.

CBAMs became serious in 2023 when the EU passed its own scheme into law in May 2023. The EU CBAM will now enter into a transitional phase from 1 October 2023 until the end of 2025. During this period importers of goods covered by the legislation will be required to report greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) embedded in their imports (direct and indirect emissions) but they will not have to make any financial payments or adjustments. The system will then enter its full format from 1 January 2026, with affected importers being forced to purchase and surrender CBAM certificates, which will be priced at the EU emission trading scheme (ETS) rate, currently at around Euro88/t. Other CBAMs have also been mooted in Canada and the US. In Canada the government ran a consultation on border carbon adjustments in 2021. It is currently considering its next steps. The US meanwhile has had both Republican and Democrat party senators make separate suggestions for a CBAM since at least 2021.

Just because the EU is set to implement its CBAM and other countries are considering their own versions doesn’t mean that they are necessarily a good idea. Cembureau, the European cement association, has been steadily lobbying on the details such as indirect emissions and waste incineration in the EU CBAM for years. Criticisms of CBAMs in general include potential clashes with World Trade Organisation rules, accusations of protectionism, triggering inflation, not being equitable to less developed nations and even failing to stop carbon leakage in the first place. The EU CBAM has also linked itself to the local ETS price. So, even after the transitional period, the carbon price may start to jump about in unpredictable ways once the system fully goes live in 2026.

The game-changer in recent years for international carbon emissions reduction legislation though was arguably when the US government introduced its Inflation Reduction Act in 2022. This is because it served both sustainability and self-interest on a grander scale than seen previously. The act promised US$369bn in subsidies for companies to invest in low carbon technology. However, the catch was that the investment tied supply chains to the US market, much to the ire of some of the US’ trade partners such as the EU. CBAMs offer a similar opportunity to governments around the world if they choose. They can be used to protect domestic carbon emission reduction effects in heavy industry but they can also be used for protectionism. Hence Bowen was due to say during his speech that the Inflation Reduction Act and other policies elsewhere “mean that Australia needs to act to stay in the game.” Australia has the advantage that it can watch how the EU CBAM pans out before it implements its own version.


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