'Roll up for the greatÂ pollutionÂ fire sale, the ultimate chance to wreck the climate on the cheap. You sir, over there, from the power company - look at this lovely tonne of freshly made, sulphur-rich carbon dioxide. Last summer it cost an eyewatering â‚¬31 to throw up your smokestack, but in our give-away global recession sale,Â that's been slashedÂ to a crazy â‚¬8.20. Dump plans for the wind turbine! Compare our offer with costly solar energy! At this low, low price you can't afford not to burn coal!"
Set up to price pollution out of existence, carbon trading is pricing it back in. Europe's carbon markets are in collapse.
Yet the hiss of escaping gas is almost inaudible. There's no big news headline, nothing sensational for TV viewers to watch; no queues outside banks or missing Texan showmen. You can't see or hear a market for a pollutant tumble. But at stake is what was supposed to be a central lever in the world's effort to turn backÂ climate change. Intended to price fossil fuels out of the market, the system is instead turning them into the rational economic choice.
That there exists something called carbon trading is about all that most people know. A few know, too, that Europe has created carbon exchanges, and traders who buy and sell. Few but the professionals, however, know that this market is now failing in its purpose: to edge up the cost of emitting CO2.
The theory sounded fine in the boom years, back when Nicholas Stern described climate change as "the biggest market failure in history" - a market failure to whichÂ carbon trading was meant to be a market solution. Instead, it's bolstering the business case for fossil fuels.
Understanding why is easy. A year ago European governments allocated a limited number of carbon emission permits to their big polluters. Businesses that reduce pollution are allowed to sell spare permits to ones that need more. As demand outstrips this capped supply, and the price of permits rises, an incentive grows to invest in green energy. Why buy costly permits to keep a coal plant running when you can put the cash into clean power instead?