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Bank of America’s CEO has a message for governments on carbon markets: ‘Give us a price’

November 17, 2021, 2:09 PM UTC

Good morning.

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.

Katherine Dunn
katherine.dunn@fortune.com
@katherine_dunn

CARBON COPY

Luxury deforestation

COP26 brought a major deforestation pact—but this painstaking New York Times investigation into illegal cattle ranching, and how hides move through the global supply chain, shows just how difficult it is to stop. Cattle barons launder their cows, creating false paper trails that claim the ranching is legal and clear the way for luxury SUV seats made with illegal leather. NYT

Standardize everything

The UN, OECD and World Bank are teaming up for an effort to standardize financial ESG metrics and tackle 'greenwashing' in finance. That comes just after another standardization effort was unveiled at COP26. The new platform—which will be called the Impact Management Platform—will be unveiled next week. Reuters

The battle of BC

Canada's British Columbia has been hit again, and again, and again this year: with drought, wildfires, and low punishing floods. These are all connected. "With intense heat comes wildfires, and with wildfires come changes to the soil and vegetation that can exacerbate the effects of heavy rainfall," the Globe and Mail writes—and the common thread is a phenomenon called an "atmospheric river." Globe and Mail

Carbon neutral LNG? 

Energy major TotalEnergies has already gotten flack for declaring a cargo of liquid natural gas 'carbon neutral' in a Bloomberg investigation earlier this year. But now an industry body is attempting to lay out standards for how gas—a fossil fuel—can meet that bar. About 30 shipments have already been called 'carbon neutral', but not all of those shipments would have met the new standards, the body says. Reuters

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

From a carbon market to a coal ‘phase down,’ here are the 8 key takeaways from COP26 by Katherine Dunn

Shell’s decision to leave the Netherlands is about keeping investors on its side in difficult times by Katherine Dunn

Our duty is to make an imperfect climate deal work by Paul Polman

Europe faces possible winter blackouts as Nord Stream 2 suspension heats up gas standoff with Russia by David Meyer

How crypto-owning climate activists balance saving the planet with supporting energy-hungry Bitcoin mines by Sophie Mellor 

China watered down the COP26 pledge to eliminate coal. Days later it reported record coal production by Eamon Barrett

Buildings not retrofit for net zero face a looming ‘brown discount’ as real estate goes green by Katherine Dunn

Why Mary Barra is convinced GM can still catch TSLA—and believes the stock is ‘so undervalued’ by Jane Thier

CLOSING NUMBER

11 

The number of coal plants within 30 kilometers of New Delhi. The Indian government has now closed six of them—along with schools and universities—as the country's capital remains covered in toxic smog for the second week. That is having a debilitating impact on kids, as complaints of asthma spike, and the country's Supreme Court had ordered action—even including a pandemic-style lockdown to bring down pollution. And yet, India was one of the main forces behind the last-minute watering down of the Glasgow Climate Pact's agreements on coal. 

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