In a Nutshell
The EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) is a market-based approach for setting a price for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. It works on a ‘cap and trade’ basis whereby a ‘cap’ or limit is set on the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions allowed from specific sectors of the economy each year, with the aim of achieving emissions reductions over time. This cap is converted into tradable emission allowances, which are then allocated to market participants through free allocation or auctions. One allowance gives the holder the right to emit one tonne of CO2 (or its equivalent) during a specified period. Companies covered by the EU ETS must monitor and report their emissions each year and purchase or trade allowances as needed to cover their annual emissions.
Participants who are likely to emit more than their allocation have a choice between taking measures to reduce their emissions or buying additional allowances; either from the secondary market, for example companies who hold allowances they do not need, or from member state-held auctions. When participants reduce their emissions, they can either sell their allowances or keep them for the future.
The ETS is the EU’s main tool for addressing emissions reductions, covering the following sector, representing about 40% of the EU’s total CO2 emissions: power, heat generation, energy intensive industrial sectors, aviation, and, since the latest revision, the maritime sector. It is now in its fourth trading phase (2021-2030). In December 2022, the European Parliament and Council reached a political agreement on the reform of the ETS. The overall target of the revised ETS was increased to a 62% reduction in carbon emissions from the sectors covered by the scheme by 2030, up from 42.8% since its introduction in 2005.
Carbon removal is not included under the EU ETS, but the Commission is set to report, by 2026, on how negative emissions could be accounted for and covered by emissions trading.
The Innovation Fund, a key source of EU support for nascent carbon removal projects amongst other clean technologies, is funded by the auctioning of ETS allowances. At 75 euro/tCO2, the ETS is set to provide around EUR 38 billion from 2020 to 2030 to the Fund.
What's on the Horizon?
The provisional political agreement reached between the European Parliament and Council in late 2022 needs to be formally adopted before the Regulation can enter into force:
- 18/04/2023: Formal adoption by the European Parliament
- 25/04/2023: Formal adoption by the Council of the European Union
- 16/05/2023: Publication in the Official Journal of the European Union
- 05/06/2023: Entry into force
By 31 July 2026, the European Commission is required to submit a report to the Parliament and the Council on the possibility of integrating negative emissions technologies (NETs) into the EU ETS. This should explore how emissions removed from the atmosphere through methods such as direct air capture can be safely and permanently stored, and how these negative emissions can be accounted for and covered by emissions trading without compromising necessary progress in reducing emissions.
By 31 July 2026, the Commission will have to assess and report on the possibility of including the municipal waste incineration sector in the ETS with a view to including it from 2028.
Update to the ETS
The ETS was revised as part of the Commission’s ‘Fit for 55’ package, which aims to introduce new or improve existing legislative tools for achieving the EU’s target of reducing net GHG emissions by at least 55% below 1990 levels by 2030. The proposed changes to the ETS include:
- Increased ambition to reduce emissions by 62% in the sectors covered by the ETS by 2030 and reduction of the cap by 4.3% per year in 2024-2027, and by 4.4% in 2028-2030.
- End of free allowances for sectors covered by the Carbon Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) in 2026-2034.
- Phase-out of free emissions allowances for aviation (25% in 2024, 50% in 2025 and 100% from 2026).
- Inclusion of maritime shipping in the ETS.
- Creation of a separate ETS for the building and road transport sectors, applying to the distributors that supply fuels for combustion. A new Social Climate Fund will direct part of the revenue from the auctioning to support vulnerable households and micro-enterprises.
- Increase in the Modernisation Fund and Innovation Fund.
- Strengthening the market stability reserve (MSR), the mechanism to help prevent excessive carbon price fluctuations.
Support for CDR through the Innovation Fund
Although the EU ETS is designed to incentivise emissions reductions as opposed to carbon removals, money raised through auctions of emission allowances under the ETS are reinvested into the EU’s Innovation Fund, which provides a source of funding support for technology-based CDR methods among other low-carbon technologies.
For more information on the link between CDR and the Innovation Fund, see here.
Should carbon removal be integrated into the EU ETS?
The inclusion of carbon removal (with permanent storage of captured carbon) in the EU ETS is subject to a nascent and growing debate in the EU policy ecosystem, in anticipation of the announced Commission report. Integrating negative emissions into the ETS would allow participants to offset a portion of their emissions by purchasing carbon removal credits. This, in turn, could create a potential long-term market for CDR.
Including removals in the EU ETS could have a number of benefits. As the ETS allowance cap is steadily reduced over time, integrating negative emissions would create additional market liquidity and decarbonisation options for hard-to-abate sectors. It would therefore help to satisfy demand for removal credits or allowances from hard-to-decarbonise sectors like aviation and would allow for carbon removal credits to be easily integrated into existing market infrastructure and trading platforms.
Carbon removal project developers and investors would gain greater confidence that there will be sustainable long-term demand for carbon removal credits. It would also allow removal projects to benefit from the carbon price. However, the price differential between the cost of CDR and the EU ETS carbon price will be a key consideration. The EU ETS would only incentivise CDR solutions within a certain range of the ETS price. This could be sufficient for some approaches such as BECCS (cost at scale USD 15 – 400/tCO2) and waste-to-energy with CCS, but additional incentives would be needed for direct air capture given its higher price point (cost at scale USD 100 – 300/tCO2) – although this is expected to change as technologies improve and costs of different methods decrease. Complementary incentive mechanisms such as Carbon Contracts for Difference (CCfDs) could bridge the gap between the actual cost of certain CDR methods and the EU ETS carbon price to drive the investment needed. The Commission is considering CCfDs as part of the overall agreement on the revision of the ETS Directive.
However, it is imperative that the potential inclusion of carbon removal credits in the EU ETS does not undermine the incentive for emitters covered by the ETS to decarbonise, or the urgency with which they should do so. One option to address this risk would be to limit access or quantities of removals to specific sectors that are harder to decarbonise and more likely to have residual emissions.
Another important consideration is the impact that any inclusion of CDR in the EU ETS would have on the integrity of the market. Developing robust monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) standards would safeguard the integrity of the ETS. The introduction of these standards is underway under the EU’s CRCF legislation.
An alternative approach might be establishing a separate, regulated negative emissions market. This separate market could later be linked with the EU ETS after the differential between CDR and ETS prices has been reduced and CDR technologies have a demonstrated track record at scale.
The EU ETS & other markets
The EU ETS was the world’s first international emissions trading system when it was set up in 2005. It has since inspired the development of emissions trading in other countries and regions, including most recently the UK and China. The potential role of the UK ETS as a market for CDR was signalled in July 2023, when the UK Government stated its intention to include Greenhouse Gas Removals (GGRs) in the UK ETS, subject to further consultation, a robust MRV regime being in place and the management of wider impacts. In 2017, the EU and Switzerland signed an agreement to link their emissions trading systems. The agreement entered into force on 1 January 2020, and the link became operational in September 2020.
Entry into force of Directive 2004/101/EC establishing a scheme for GHG emission allowance trading
The cap is set based on estimates. The majority of allowances are given for free, and ETS covers CO2 emissions from power generators and energy-intensive industries.
The cap is lowered around 6.5% in comparison to 2005, based on actual emissions. Around 90% of the allocations are given for free, and auctions are held. N₂O emissions are included by certain countries. The aviation sector is included in 2012.
National caps are traded with a EU-wide cap. Default auctioning method replaces the free allocation system, and the scope is expanded to include more sectors and gases.
Current trading phase
Proposal for a revision of the EU ETS released as a part of the Fit for 55 package
Provisional agreement between co-legislators on the revision of the EU ETS
Commission’s report on the inclusion of negative emissions in the ETS expected
- Should negative emissions be included in the EU ETS? by Eve Tamme
- Review of the EU ETS, European Parliament briefing, 2023
Directive (EU) 2023/959 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 10 May 2023 amending Directive 2003/87/EC establishing a system for greenhouse gas emission allowance trading within the Union and Decision (EU) 2015/1814 concerning the establishment and operation of a market stability reserve for the Union greenhouse gas emission trading system (Text with EEA relevance)