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Economic Warfare and Cognitive Warfare

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Until not long ago, the Western world lived in the conviction that Liberalism was an end in itself, however, the new context of globalization suggests that political economics once again makes more sense, given that power relations in the economic sphere can no longer be ignored and  the idea that world trade is structured on supply and demand appears obsolete.

The world is changing. Situations change, and events and the ways of understanding politics change with them. Instruments change as well: if the aphorism of Clausewitz that war is politics conducted by other means once seemed valid, today we might say that politics (and economics) is war conducted by the means of information.

The threat is no longer limited to what we once thought and conceived in the geographical terms of one superpower attacking another. The threat today is asymmetrical, different, and changes continuously. It travels through the Internet, it is immediate, and above all, it threatens the entire system. It is not aimed at military or political targets but commercial, industrial, scientific, technological, and financial interests instead. This requires intelligence to structure itself around new duties: protect not only the entire system but also the weakest links in the chain of production.

All this requires changes in mentality and in operational processes, as well as continuous updating, especially at a business culture level. Most of all, it requires close interaction between intelligence and the private sector, despite the difficulties this entails.

The crisis we are currently undergoing, together with the industrial and commercial physiognomy characteristic of our era, requires us to consider the idea of “economic warfare” very closely.

It is essentially since the end of the Cold War that the balance of powers has been developed around economic issues: most governments today are no longer interested in occupying territory or dominating other peoples but rather building up technological, industrial and commercial power capable of bringing money and jobs to their own land.

Globalization has transformed competition from “gentle” and “limited” into authentic “economic warfare”.

Although this economic challenge reduces the areas available for military warfare, its ultimate goal of accumulating power and well-being is the same.

The national economic intelligence strategies recently adopted by numerous governments assign their private operatives central roles in maintaining security by providing them with information technology infrastructure and the primary asset in the digital age: data.

The step between protecting private economic activities and protecting national economic interests is a short one indeed.

Economic intelligence consists in coordinating a series of activities: collecting and processing information, monitoring competitors, keeping strategic information secret, and capitalizing knowledge for the purpose of controlling and influencing world economic environment. All this makes it a powerful weapon at the nation’s disposal.

The main players in economic warfare are:

First and foremost, the world’s nations, which remain the most influential regulators on the economic chessboard despite their relative decline in the life of nations and the various restrictions placed over them, such as those imposed by international organizations like the European Union. One important recent change is that now nations must take numerous stakeholders (NGO, international bodies, companies, mass media) into account. At any rate, they uphold the role of arbiter that all the other players only continue to emphasize by regularly imploring their intervention.

The world’s companies, which address the new hyper-competitive geo-economic scenario by using strategic information control as a weapon of competitiveness and economic security.

Civil society: the expansion of discussions on social issues regarding company activities (nutrition and well-being, technological progress and risks to public health industry, and the environment, transport and passenger safety, information technology and individual freedom), the mass use and democratization of Internet, and the growing involvement of the legal system in monitoring business operations, all increase the risks of hacking attacks against companies by hackers from civil society.  Including in the public discussion topics such as risks to the environment, sustainable development, socially responsible investment, and corporate social responsibility brings greater importance to the legitimacy of social questions.

The infosphere, which is not a category of physical persons or legal entities but instead a dynamic, that is the aggregate of interventions and messages spread through media and the worldwide web. The infosphere is a particularly insidious instrument similar to an amplifier that continuously jumbles and blends ideas, emotions, and impulses emitted by an infinite number of people without any real dominant subject and exerts a determinant influence – positive or negative as occurs – on individuals and organizations. When launched in the infosphere, a simple statement has the power to trigger ferocious argument, harsh political reaction, media crises, and damage to company reputations. The infosphere can become a particularly effective weapon of destabilization. We must never forget that a brand’s image and reputation are strategic components of the capital of a company that can affect its commercial and financial activities.

Which forms does economic warfare take?

Economic warfare is often confused with economic espionage, which despite being used as one of economic warfare’s weapons is hard to define both because the companies victimized are reluctant to publicize its incursion and because it is hard to circumscribe in juridical terms and therefore difficult to report.

A more commonly practiced form of economic warfare is the purchasing of companies. This may lead to authentic forms of surrounding the industries in any given territory through operations that reflect motivations of financial, economic and technological nature all at the same time.

Yet another form of economic warfare, which is both particularly widespread and insidious, is lobbying; in other words, an influencing strategy aimed directly at public decision-makers assigned to the drafting of regulations. Our nations are particularly plagued by the proliferation of regulations and one strategically important aspect of lobbying is attending and altering the process of creating, interpreting and/or applying regulations and legislative measures and directly or indirectly influencing public powers in every intervention or decision. International trade is largely based on influence, and therefore gaining closer access to decision-making centers has become an obligatory part of commercial competition.

All the practices above are included in influence strategy: influential communication is also the hardest to identify and oppose because it is perfectly legal. “Information war” is based on the following few simple principles that can wreck havoc when marshaled together:

  • moral argument, that is the possibility to induce a crisis on the basis of an ethical reasoning;
  • offending political correctness by disrupting the day’s cultural and psychological patterns;
  • choosing targets, in the sense that the weaker the legitimacy of the adversary’s capital, the more the information attack will provoke escalation in the media;
  • the degree of celebrity of the players;
  • the criterion of appropriateness or resonance of the environment.

The upheaval of the Western economies’ competitive system is not just a passing thing. A growing number of powers (China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Iran, Russia) is conditioning the rapid shift in international competition. More often than not, the choice of winning dominance in foreign markets prevails over restructuring the nation’s own domestic markets. This demonstrates the extent to which a power strategy can make a decisive difference in the context of economic competition. These new players in international competition hold a different view of the dialectic between power and market, the latter being seen as the primary means to the increment of power. This vision revives the basic principles of political economics, according to which the market is the only path to power and not the other way around that has been demonstrated in numerous cases (such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s use of energy resources for coercive bargaining and blackmail in 2009) and illustrates the limits  of the interpretative models of liberal economists whose analyses were focused on the effects of deregulation, mergers, or financial speculation involving gas prices, but fell short of the possible use of gas trade as a weapon.

The process of globalization is irreversible and fairly independent of what governments do.  Globalization is one thing, but the ideology of a global free market that may produce a higher growth rate than any other system but gives no importance to how such growth is distributed is another. The argument that the highest capitalistic growth distributes resources in the best possible way, in fact, was never very convincing. Even Adam Smith thought that there were certain things the market could not do and should not do.

Historically speaking, the balanced evolution of world industry was created not by liberalism but by its opposite. The United States and Germany both became industrial powers in the 19th century because they protected their industries until they were able to compete against the dominant economy of the day: Great Britain. Neo-classical economic theories are now in disfavor because the system has come to be disrupted by scarce control over international financial flows and investment procedures.

Now more than ever, we are witnessing a struggle between the forces of capitalism, which tend to overcome every obstacle, and political forces that operate through nation states and are obliged to regulate these procedures. The laws of capitalist development are simple: maximize expansion, profit, and increase in capital. Governments by nature have different priorities instead, and this generates conflict. Furthermore, the dynamic of the global economy is one that does not ensure the stability of its protagonists.

The nation-state system and the economy system coexist in constant tension and must adapt, but if there were no relative stability among states, the instability of a world organized along the lines of transnational economy would only increase. The real problem is not whether governments can control the international corporations operating inside their borders, but whether they are able to exert global control: when companies and governments clash, the latter must negotiate as if there were another nation seated before them.

Like religions and cultures, globalization is only a simplified answer to today’s conflicts and the challenges to security. Globalization has most certainly reduced the importance of military power since the end of the 20th century, whereas security – internal security in particular – has become a global public asset. In the age of information technology, interdependence, and ”smart goods over heavy goods”, the military force offers less and costs more. Economic, technological, and especially communicative competition is more important and determinant than military strength.

The globalization of information has contributed to changing the nature of warfare by making public opinion decisive. In the short term, geo-information has become more important than geo-economy because its effects are immediate and not always governable. This is also a post-Cold War phenomenon.

In this context, the economy is no longer the mechanism of security as it was during Cold War, but on the contrary, security now serves the economy in creating better conditions for the expansion and protection of globalization. The nature of security depends on the situation prevailing in each nation and varies from one region to another, according to the respective level of globalization.

Consequently, it is the process of globalization that has restored political economics to importance and re-sparked a discussion formerly considered closed, according to which the market is the path to power and not the other way around, as it becomes an instrument of power politics in the globalization of exchange. The accumulation of power through economic expansion is the driving force behind the new emerging nations.

Yet today’s economic context must come to terms with new offensive strategies that undermine the industrial basis of the market economy and draw attention to the predatory policies of what may be defined as authentic economic warfare.

It is in this context that all companies, regardless of size, can be said to suffer damage from the absence of an economic security culture that only the use of intelligence, as a tool in analyzing predatory completion, can provide.

Interpreting the notion of national security including also the safeguarding of national interests requires information and security services to be ready to protect big companies or those of strategic significance, which the French refer to as “companies of national strategic importance” or “national champions”. These companies often – but not always – have their own information or security organizations that help them survive fiercer and fiercer competition.

In any case, in the field of economic intelligence the rules between the services of the various nations are more flexible, and it is easier to refer to others merely as competitors, neither friend nor enemy. This field is currently in the process of development, and European economic intelligence is still in embryonic phase.

The evolution of the information society has profoundly modified the frame of conflict. In the opinion of American analysts like John Arquilla and David Runfeldt, experts in netwar at Rand Corporation, the nation that wins tomorrow’s conflicts will not be the one with the biggest bomb, but the one that tells the best story.

In this sense, Americans have been referring to the key concept of information dominance since 1997. Defined as the control of anything that may be deemed information, this doctrine aspires at the moulding of the world by standardizing international practices and regulations to the American model, with the objective of placing decision-making bodies under control.

These experts note that it is sufficient to observe how American public opinion was mobilized during the invasion of Kuwait by a disinformation process planned at military level, or more precisely, at the level of psychological warfare. Information manipulation processes allow certain facts to be marginalized, and for this reason the domination of information has become a top priority in defining American strategy.

We may consider how the war in Iraq demonstrated the importance that manipulating information has assumed in international relations. The accusations made by G. W. Bush against Saddam Hussein regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction represent a textbook case in the history of disinformation.

On the other hand, we must be careful of jumping to conclusions about how cognitive warfare is waged: disinformation, or even worse, the manipulation and authentic distortion of information for the purpose of deceiving your adversary or ally is often mistakenly confused with the production of knowledge conceived to orient the rules of conduct.

In this regard, Harbulot emphasized the profoundly innovative role of information war in terms of strategy and its implications for companies.

It was naturally Harbulot’s intention to use cognitive warfare to protect the economic interests of French companies against their American competitors. If, in fact, conflicts ranging from the Gulf War to the War in Kosovo have demonstrated the overwhelming superiority of American military intelligence overseas, what room for maneuver remains open today for the managers of the intelligence service in Western Europe, who are responsible for defending the geo-economic interests of their nations against American interests? Harbulot’s answer is clear: this room for maneuver is constantly eroding, and a situation of near total paralysis has been reached in certain cases.

Closing this gap means modernizing the thought of Sun-Tzu, the Comintern, and Mao Zedong, and especially that of Winston Churchill, the first Western statesman to have orchestrated a plan for information warfare against Nazi Germany (Plan Jaël). In terms of disinformation, he represents British genius in deceiving the enemy on the dates and locations of invasion landings.

Naturally, the lack of legal provisions regarding the manipulation of knowledge raises serious concern for the economic security of European companies, which must consequently arm themselves with techniques capable of strategically managing economic information.

It is precisely in light of American political-military choices that French strategy discerned the need to define just what information war really is in the strictest terms. The expression used in French strategic context is “cognitive warfare”, which is defined as the capacity to utilize knowledge in circumstances of conflict.

In particular, the French School of Economic Warfare acknowledges in cognitive warfare the conflict between different capacities of obtaining, producing, and/or obstructing determined types of knowledge implicit in power relations that can be defined “weak against weak” or inversely, “weak against strong”.

Numerous examples that come from the world of industry testify that innovation in this field is not always necessarily made by the strongest. Naturally, the United States is the primary artifice of “strong against weak” cognitive thinking, such as, for example, in defense of its position as superpower at both military and informational level. This nation’s way of orienting its own and the other nation’s conduct implies its complete acquisition of the importance of cognitive warfare as the ability to have the images of single powers perceived by the world public opinion, a strong argument in the search for legitimacy that every democracy must acquire in national and international context. The United States has always – but especially after September 11 – stoked the legitimacy of its policies by emphasizing the defense of democracy and the need for global security as reasons to combat anti-democratic forces.

In today’s context of intense competition, destabilization plays a fundamental role. Harbulot suggests considering the example, that has become common practice in economic warfare, of a multinational company that decides to stop a competitor from developing a project in an emerging nation.

A cognitive warfare operation might take the following form:

Identification of the competitor’s weak points in the area in question (weaknesses may vary in nature: bribes paid to authorities, environmental pollution, failures to respect human rights). All the information collected must be verifiable and not give rise to fallacious interpretation.

The choice of the information attack procedure: if the cognitive aspect is considered, the following scenario may be imagined. The director assigned orders funds to be paid into a private foundation supported by the company. A trusted person at such foundation then channels this money to a NGO that has posed itself the objective of protecting the environment. The maneuver consists in then making the NGO aware of this dossier by indirectly providing it with verifiable (and therefore non-manipulated) information on the misdeeds of the competitor multinational. Through its Internet site, the NGO then sends negative messages against the competitor’s project. This is how the chain of knowledge is created. The next step required is knowing how to consciously activate it for the purpose of destabilizing the target.

The chief strength of the information attack lies not in deceiving or misinforming but instead in fomenting a pertinent dispute that has been demonstrated by objective facts. The level of conspiracy is limited to setting up and activating the information chain. The more “grounded” the diatribe is, the harder it will be for the adversary to demonstrate conspiracy, even if only in theory.

It is clear that the spread of new information technologies has brought competition exasperated levels and facilitated cognitive warfare, in such way triggering an unprecedented conflict that, in the opinion of the French analysts, exceeds even that of the Cold War.

Information has become another weapon in the art of war capable of making the difference between winning and losing, regardless of whether the conflict is military or economic.

Changes of such degree impose cultural revolution.

Then there is psychological warfare, one of the principal forms of information war. It is the most sophisticated because it relies essentially on human intelligence, in its capacity to understand possible actions for success by controlling the means of communication.

Little known and scarcely practiced in France, psychological warfare has never received much attention from the military establishment, which has often succumbed to the pressure of events or adversaries, as happened in Indochina and Algeria.

Psychological warfare employs every means available, from disinformation to deceit, from propaganda to interdiction, in clashes of various nature (from the battle against terrorism to conventional warfare and the subsidization of peace) and is moreover directed to public opinion for the purpose of conditioning or manipulating it.

The use of psychological weapons cannot be improvised and is based on an organized operative structure and conducted by specialized personnel and organizations.

Civil communication systems have by now reached levels of performance previously attained only by armed forces and governments. This has led to the accumulation of a critical mass such to enable a lowering of costs. For this reason, even if the conservation of certain autonomous military capacities is foreseen, the development of information systems for defense and intervention depends more and more on civil systems. This creates a vulnerability that might be underestimated in times of crisis or conflict.

The infosphere’s framework has become highly conflictual; information war has become inevitable and is waged with the function of appropriation (intelligence), interdiction (limitation of access to information) and manipulation (intoxication).

Economic intelligence provides a necessary response to a world with no more borders of time or space, where information is immediate and reaction time is zero. A re-organization of structures around the new dimension assumed by the relationship between information and intelligence leads to changes in both the decision-making system and the management of human resources. First and foremost of all, the revolution must be cultural in nature: perceiving information as a weapon to be incorporated into national defense strategy.

Economy

Reforms Key to Romania’s Resilient Recovery

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Over the past decade, Romania has achieved a remarkable track record of high economic growth, sustained poverty reduction, and rising household incomes. An EU member since 2007, the country’s economic growth was one of the highest in the EU during the period 2010-2020.

Like the rest of the world, however, Romania has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the economy contracted by 3.9 percent and the unemployment rate reached 5.5 percent in July before dropping slightly to 5.3 percent in December. Trade and services decreased by 4.7 percent, while sectors such as tourism and hospitality were severely affected. Hard won gains in poverty reduction were temporarily reversed and social and economic inequality increased.

The Romanian government acted swiftly in response to the crisis, providing a fiscal stimulus of 4.4 percent of GDP in 2020 to help keep the economy moving. Economic activity was also supported by a resilient private sector. Today, Romania’s economy is showing good signs of recovery and is projected to grow at around 7 percent in 2021, making it one of the few EU economies expected to reach pre-pandemic growth levels this year. This is very promising.

Yet the road ahead remains highly uncertain, and Romania faces several important challenges.

The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of Romania’s institutions to adverse shocks, exacerbated existing fiscal pressures, and widened gaps in healthcare, education, employment, and social protection.

Poverty increased significantly among the population in 2020, especially among vulnerable communities such as the Roma, and remains elevated in 2021 due to the triple-hit of the ongoing pandemic, poor agricultural yields, and declining remittance incomes.

Frontline workers, low-skilled and temporary workers, the self-employed, women, youth, and small businesses have all been disproportionately impacted by the crisis, including through lost salaries, jobs, and opportunities.

The pandemic has also highlighted deep-rooted inequalities. Jobs in the informal sector and critical income via remittances from abroad have been severely limited for communities that depend on them most, especially the Roma, the country’s most vulnerable group.

How can Romania address these challenges and ensure a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery for all?

Reforms in several key areas can pave the way forward.

First, tax policy and administration require further progress. If Romania is to spend more on pensions, education, or health, it must boost revenue collection. Currently, Romania collects less than 27 percent of GDP in budget revenue, which is the second lowest share in the EU. Measures to increase revenues and efficiency could include improving tax revenue collection, including through digitalization of tax administration and removal of tax exemptions, for example.

Second, public expenditure priorities require adjustment. With the third lowest public spending per GDP among EU countries, Romania already has limited space to cut expenditures, but could focus on making them more efficient, while addressing pressures stemming from its large public sector wage bill. Public employment and wages, for instance, would benefit from a review of wage structures and linking pay with performance.

Third, ensuring sustainability of the country’s pension fund is a high priority. The deficit of the pension fund is currently around 2 percent of GDP, which is subsidized from the state budget. The fund would therefore benefit from closer examination of the pension indexation formula, the number of years of contribution, and the role of special pensions.

Fourth is reform and restructuring of State-Owned Enterprises, which play a significant role in Romania’s economy. SOEs account for about 4.5 percent of employment and are dominant in vital sectors such as transport and energy. Immediate steps could include improving corporate governance of SOEs and careful analysis of the selection and reward of SOE executives and non-executive bodies, which must be done objectively to ensure that management acts in the best interest of companies.

Finally, enhancing social protection must be central to the government’s efforts to boost effectiveness of the public sector and deliver better services for citizens. Better targeted social assistance will be more effective in reaching and supporting vulnerable households and individuals. Strategic investments in infrastructure, people’s skills development, and public services can also help close the large gaps that exist across regions.

None of this will be possible without sustained commitment and dedicated resources. Fortunately, Romania will be able to access significant EU funds through its National Recovery and Resilience Plan, which will enable greater investment in large and important sectors such as transportation, infrastructure to support greater deployment of renewable energy, education, and healthcare.

Achieving a resilient post-pandemic recovery will also mean advancing in critical areas like green transition and digital transformation – major new opportunities to generate substantial returns on investment for Romania’s economy.

I recently returned from my first official trip to Romania where I met with country and government leaders, civil society representatives, academia, and members of the local community. We discussed a wide range of topics including reforms, fiscal consolidation, social inclusion, renewably energy, and disaster risk management. I was highly impressed by their determination to see Romania emerge even stronger from the pandemic. I believe it is possible. To this end, I reiterated the World Bank’s continued support to all Romanians for a safe, bright, and prosperous future.

First appeared in Romanian language in Digi24.ro, via World Bank

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Economy

US Economic Turmoil: The Paradox of Recovery and Inflation

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The US economy has been a rollercoaster since the pandemic cinched the world last year. As lockdowns turned into routine and the buzz of a bustling life came to a sudden halt, a problem manifested itself to the US regime. The problem of sustaining economic activity while simultaneously fighting the virus. It was the intent of ‘The American Rescue Plan’ to provide aid to the US citizens, expand healthcare, and help buoy the population as the recession was all but imminent. Now as the global economy starts to rebound in apparent post-pandemic reality, the US regime faces a dilemma. Either tighten the screws on the overheating economy and risk putting an early break on recovery or let the economy expand and face a prospect of unrelenting inflation for years to follow.

The Consumer Price Index, the core measure of inflation, has been off the radar over the past few months. The CPI remained largely over the 4% mark in the second quarter, clocking a colossal figure of 5.4% last month. While the inflation is deemed transitionary, heated by supply bottlenecks coinciding with swelling demand, the pandemic-related causes only explain a partial reality of the blooming clout of prices. Bloomberg data shows that transitory factors pushing the prices haywire account for hotel fares, airline costs, and rentals. Industries facing an offshoot surge in prices include the automobile industry and the Real estate market. However, the main factors driving the prices are shortages of core raw materials like computer chips and timber (essential to the efficient supply functions of the respective industries). Despite accounting for the temporal effect of certain factors, however, the inflation seems hardly controlled; perverse to the position opined by Fed Chair Jerome Powell.

The Fed already insinuated earlier that the economy recovered sooner than originally expected, making it worthwhile to ponder over pulling the plug on the doveish leverage that allowed the economy to persevere through the pandemic. The main cause was the rampant inflation – way off the 2% targetted inflation level. However, the alluded remarks were deftly handled to avoid a panic in an already fragile road to recovery. The economic figures shed some light on the true nature of the US economy which baffled the Fed. The consumer expectations, as per Bloomberg’s data, show that prices are to inflate further by 4.8% over the course of the following 12 months. Moreover, the data shows that the investor sentiment gauged from the bond market rally is also up to 2.5% expected inflation over the corresponding period. Furthermore, a survey from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) suggested that net 47 companies have raised their average prices since May by seven percentage points; the largest surge in four decades. It is all too much to overwhelm any reader that the data shows the economy is reeling with inflation – and the Fed is not clear whether it is transitionary or would outlast the pandemic itself.

Economists, however, have shown faith in the tools and nerves of the Federal Reserve. Even the IMF commended the Fed’s response and tactical strategies implemented to trestle the battered economy. However, much averse to the celebration of a win over the pandemic, the fight is still not through the trough. As the Delta variant continues to amass cases in the United States, the championed vaccinations are being questioned. While it is explicable that the surge is almost distinctly in the unvaccinated or low-vaccinated states, the threat is all that is enough to drive fear and speculation throughout the country. The effects are showing as, despite a lucrative economic rebound, over 9 million positions lay vacant for employment. The prices are billowing yet the growth is stagnating as supply is still lukewarm and people are still wary of returning to work. The job market casts a recession-like scenario while the demand is strong which in turn is driving the wages into the competitive territory. This wage-price spiral would fuel inflation, presumably for years as embedded expectations of employees would be hard to nudge lower. Remember prices and wages are always sticky downwards!

Now the paradox stands. As Congress is allegedly embarking on signing a $4 trillion economic plan, presented by president Joe Bidden, the matters are to turn all the more complex and difficult to follow. While the infrastructure bill would not be a hard press on short-term inflation, the iteration of tax credits and social spending programs would most likely fuel the inflation further. It is true that if the virus resurges, there won’t be any other option to keep the economy afloat. However, a bustling inflationary environment would eventually push the Fed to put the brakes on by either raising the interest rates or by gradually ceasing its Asset Purchase Program. Both the tools, however, would risk a premature contraction which could pull the United States into an economic spiral quite similar to that of the deflating Japanese economy. It is, therefore, a tough stance to take whether a whiff of stagflation today is merely provisional or are these some insidious early signs to be heeded in a deliberate fashion and rectified immediately.

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Carbon Market Could Drive Climate Action

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Authors: Martin Raiser, Sebastian Eckardt, Giovanni Ruta*

Trading commenced on China’s national emissions trading system (ETS) on Friday. With a trading volume of about 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide or roughly 12 percent of the total global CO2 emissions, the ETS is now the world’s largest carbon market.

While the traded emission volume is large, the first trading day opened, as expected, with a relatively modest price of 48 yuan ($7.4) per ton of CO2. Though this is higher than the global average, which is about $2 per ton, it is much lower than carbon prices in the European Union market where the cost per ton of CO2 recently exceeded $50.

Large volume but low price

The ETS has the potential to play an important role in achieving, and accelerating China’s long-term climate goals — of peaking emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060. Under the plan, about 2,200 of China’s largest coal and gas-fired power plants have been allocated free emission rights based on their historical emissions, power output and carbon intensity.

Facilities that cut emissions quickly will be able to sell excess allowances for a profit, while those that exceed their initial allowance will have to pay to purchase additional emission rights or pay a fine. Putting a price tag on CO2 emissions will promote investment in low-carbon technologies and equipment, while carbon trading will ensure emissions are first cut where it is least costly, minimizing abatement costs. This sounds plain and simple, but it will take time for the market to develop and meaningfully contribute to emission reductions.
The initial phase of market development is focused on building credible emissions disclosure and verification systems — the basic infrastructure of any functioning carbon market — encouraging facilities to accurately monitor and report their emissions rather than constraining them. Consequently, allocations given to power companies have been relatively generous, and are tied to power output rather than being set at absolute levels.

Also, the requirements of each individual facility to obtain additional emission rights are capped at 20 percent above the initial allowance and fines for non-compliance are relatively low. This means carbon prices initially are likely to remain relatively low, mitigating the immediate financial impact on power producers and giving them time to adjust.

For carbon trading to develop into a significant policy tool, total emissions and individual allowances will need to tighten over time. Estimates by Tsinghua University suggest that carbon prices will need to be raised to $300-$350 per ton by 2060 to achieve carbon neutrality. And our research at the World Bank suggest a broadly applied carbon price of $50 could help reduce China’s CO2 emissions by almost 25 percent compared with business as usual over the coming decade, while also significantly contributing to reduced air pollution.

Communicating a predictable path for annual emission cap reductions will allow power producers to factor future carbon price increases into their investment decisions today. In addition, experience from the longest-established EU market shows that there are benefits to smoothing out cyclical fluctuations in demand.

For example, carbon emissions naturally decline during periods of lower economic activity. In order to prevent this from affecting carbon prices, the EU introduced a stability reserve mechanism in 2019 to reduce the surplus of allowances and stabilize prices in the market.

Besides, to facilitate the energy transition away from coal, allowances would eventually need to be set at an absolute, mass-based level, which is applied uniformly to all types of power plants — as is done in the EU and other carbon markets.

The current carbon-intensity based allocation mechanism encourages improving efficiency in existing coal power plants and is intended to safeguard reliable energy supply, but it creates few incentives for power producers to divest away from coal.

The effectiveness of the ETS in creating appropriate price incentives would be further enhanced if combined with deeper structural reforms in power markets to allow competitive renewable energy to gain market share.

As the market develops, carbon pricing should become an economy-wide instrument. The power sector accounts for about 30 percent of carbon emissions, but to meet China’s climate goals, mitigation actions are needed in all sectors of the economy. Indeed, the authorities plan to expand the ETS to petro-chemicals, steel and other heavy industries over time.

In other carbon intensive sectors, such as transport, agriculture and construction, emissions trading will be technically challenging because monitoring and verification of emissions is difficult. Faced with similar challenges, several EU member states have introduced complementary carbon taxes applied to sectors not covered by an ETS. Such carbon excise taxes are a relatively simple and efficient instrument, charged in proportion to the carbon content of fuel and a set carbon price.

Finally, while free allowances are still given to some sectors in the EU and other more mature national carbon markets, the majority of initial annual emission rights are auctioned off. This not only ensures consistent market-based price signals, but generates public revenue that can be recycled back into the economy to subsidize abatement costs, offset negative social impacts or rebalance the tax mix by cutting taxes on labor, general consumption or profits.

So far, China’s carbon reduction efforts have relied largely on regulations and administrative targets. Friday’s launch of the national ETS has laid the foundation for a more market-based policy approach. If deployed effectively, China’s carbon market will create powerful incentives to stimulate investment and innovation, accelerate the retirement of less-efficient coal-fired plants, drive down the cost of emission reduction, while generating resources to finance the transition to a low-carbon economy.

(Martin Raiser is the World Bank country director for China, Sebastian Eckardt is the World Bank’s lead economist for China, and Giovanni Ruta is a lead environmental economist of the World Bank.)

(first published on China Daily via World Bank)

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