Bank of America’s CEO has a message for governments on carbon markets: ‘Give us a price’
This is Katherine, coming to you from London, after two weeks in Glasgow at COP26.
The world is recovering from the two week spectacle of the climate conference, and trying to digest its (very) mixed lessons. As I wrote earlier this week, the tally doesn’t tend towards easy takeaways: on the one hand, 1.5C is the new 2C, finance is shifting quickly, and the U.S. and China pledged to work together. On the other hand, the coal pledges were watered down, the Biden administration came across as distracted, and even current pledges—by every estimate—collectively put the world at a temperature rise that is too high.
One of the less expected takeaways from COP26, however, was a breakthrough in efforts to stitch together a global carbon offset trading system, by aiming to standardize and legitimize how offsets can be traded between countries. If not quite a hard global carbon tax, this was at least some recognition of the fact that putting a global value on carbon is a strategy that has remarkably wide backing—and is particularly popular with business.
While I was in Glasgow, I spoke to Brian Moynihan, the CEO of Bank of America, and he made the case once again for putting a price on carbon.
In various high-profile meetings—with leaders from the G7, with the G20, with Prince Charles—Moynihan said he has been asking for the same thing: “Give us a price.”
“It doesn’t have to be the perfect price, but that gets us started to figure out what to do next,” he said. That would allow the market to start pricing in carbon—and to then find the right price for it, he argued. But first, the scheme has to be accepted by a broad group of economies.
When asked if he was optimistic that would actually happen, Moynihan replied that, “I’m optimistic that a lot of stuff will start to happen.” He pointed toward the aviation industry, which he said is already pricing in an internal price of carbon.
“The industry wants this done. All they’re saying is, make this uniform so people can’t go around it.”
But if a carbon price is so popular, the question goes, why hasn’t it happened yet? In some regions, like the EU, it has; in the U.S., meanwhile, it hasn’t. (Famously, an expectation of political inaction was allegedly the strategy of Exxon Mobil in backing such a price, according to a Greenpeace investigation.) And there’s the risk many businesses say that, without a price, big investments in decarbonization simply don’t make economic sense.
But many executives are moving ahead anyways. Jim Hagemann Snabe, the chairman of Maersk, told me last month that the shipping giant is moving forward on investing in green shipping even without a global price—but he has to admit it would help.
“The moment you have that you instantly get everyone to invest in [decarbonizing shipping] because then it becomes an extremely good business case,” he said.
Similarly, Mahendra Singhi, CEO of India’s Dalmia Cement, told me he was unsure a global carbon tax would become a reality. But he said he sees his investments in decarbonizing his cement plants as at least partly based on an expectation that eventually a local carbon market in India will arrive—and without this retrofit, his business would be exposed.
Meanwhile, Fortune has a new season of a podcast series on businesses in the throes of transformation, called Reinvent. In the first episode, hosts Geoff Colvin and Beth Kowitt speak to GM executive vice presidents Gerald Johnson and Doug Parks about how they will make the Zero Emissions plan a reality, and what obstacles they’ll have to overcome to get there. Geoff and Beth also talk to Harvard Law Professor Jody Freeman and Bank of America’s lead auto analyst John Murphy to weigh the plan’s chances for success and what it may mean for our planet.
You can have a listen here.
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