Rebecca Boyle
November 15, 2010

America’s only nationwide carbon trading market will shut its doors next month, a tacit acknowledegment that Republican gains in Congress spell doom for any sort of federal greenhouse gas regulations. But other countries — even mega-polluter China — are ready to fill the void.

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Since 2003, the Chicago Climate Exchange, North America’s only cap and trade system for all six greenhouse gases, has operated a voluntary trading network where companies can set targets for annual emissions of carbon dioxide. Those that meet or exceed their targets can sell surplus carbon credits to companies that fall short. Firms like Ford, Bank of America, IBM and Intel signed up, according to the Financial Times. It was always voluntary, but the exchange operated with the expectation that carbon trading would one day be mandatory. “Clean” companies stood to reap major rewards.

Not everyone agrees that cap-and-trade is an effective means to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — some environmentalists favor a tax system instead, while cap-and-trade critics say it will lead to higher energy costs and do little to reduce pollution.

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But last spring, the World Bank estimated a worldwide carbon market was worth $144 billion, even amid the crippling recession. Under the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, the biggest exchange in the world (and a mandatory one), $118 billion changed hands in 2009, according to the bank. The Chicago exchange’s founder has said carbon trading could be a $10 trillion market one day. Whether these numbers hold up is now a question for other countries.

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