USA - California Cap-and-Trade Program
The California Cap-and-Trade Program began operation in 2012 with the opening of its tracking system for allocation, auction distribution, and trading of compliance instruments. Compliance obligations started in January 2013. The program covers ~75% of the state’s GHG emissions.
The program covers ~400 facilities and emissions from the power, industrial, transport, and buildings sectors. Allowances are distributed via a combination of auction, free allocation, and free allocation with consignment. The proceeds from auctioning are reinvested in projects that reduce emissions, strengthening the economy, public health, and the environment, especially in disadvantaged communities.
The California Cap-and-Trade Program is implemented under the authority of the California Air Resources Board (CARB). California has been part of the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) since 2007 and formally linked its program with Québec’s in January 2014.
In May, after over a year of public consultation, CARB presented its “Draft 2022 Scoping Plan Update”, a document that is updated every five years and sets out the strategy to meet California’s emissions reduction targets. The “2022 Scoping Plan” identified a technologically feasible and cost-effective pathway to achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. After continued public consultation over the summer, the “Final 2022 Scoping Plan” published in November projected a 48% reduction of emissions below 1990 levels in 2030, which exceeds the statutory 40% reduction target. The Final 2022 Scoping Plan was adopted by the CARB Board in December.
Considering the new modeling results, new legislation, and the need to accelerate the 2030 emissions reductions target, CARB stated in the Final 2022 Scoping Plan that it would evaluate all major programs, including the Cap-and-Trade Program, to assess the need to increase their stringency between now and 2030. CARB will report to the state legislature by the end of 2023 on any potential program changes to help achieve the accelerated 2030 target and carbon neutrality no later than 2045.
Emissions & Targets
By 2030: 40% reduction from 1990 GHG levels (SB 32)
By 2045: Carbon neutrality and an 85% reduction from 1990 anthropogenic GHG levels (AB 1279)
Size & Phases
The California Cap-and-Trade Program is structured around compliance periods. A cap trajectory has been set through 2030, with a formula for the declining annual caps through 2050 (see “Cap” section).
Allowances are both allocated and auctioned, with each allowance associated with a specific calendar year vintage. Some allowances with a vintage three years in the future are offered at each auction and may be traded, but these future vintage allowances may not be used for compliance until the compliance date for the vintage year.
FIRST COMPLIANCE PERIOD (2013-2014): The system started in 2013 with a cap of 162.8 MtCO2e, declining to 159.7 MtCO2e in 2014, at a rate of ~2% annually.
SECOND COMPLIANCE PERIOD (2015-2017):With the program expanding to include fuel distribution, the cap rose to 394.5 MtCO2e in 2015. The cap decline factor averaged 3.1% per year in the second compliance period (2015-2017), reaching 370.4 MtCO2e.
THIRD COMPLIANCE PERIOD (2018-2020): The cap in the third compliance period started at 358.3 MtCO2e and declined at an average annual rate of 3.3% to 334.2 MtCO2e in 2020.
FOURTH COMPLIANCE PERIOD (2021-2023) AND BEYOND: During the 2021-2030 period, the cap declines by about 13.4 MtCO2e each year, averaging ~4% per year, to reach 200.5 MtCO2e in 2030.
The “Cap-and-Trade Regulation” sets a formula for declining caps after 2030 through 2050.
FIRST COMPLIANCE PERIOD (2013-2014): Covered sectors included those that have one or more of the following processes or operations: large industrial facilities (including cement, glass, hydrogen, iron and steel, lead, lime manufacturing, nitric acid, petroleum and natural gas systems, petroleum refining, and pulp and paper manufacturing, including cogeneration facilities co-owned/operated at any of these facilities); electricity generation; electricity imports; other stationary combustion; and CO2 suppliers.
SECOND COMPLIANCE PERIOD AND BEYOND (2015-2030): In addition to the sectors listed above, suppliers of natural gas, suppliers of reformulated blendstock for oxygenate blending (i.e., gasoline blendstock) and distillate fuel oil (i.e., diesel fuel), suppliers of liquid petroleum gas in California, and suppliers of liquefied natural gas are covered by the program.
INCLUSION THRESHOLDS: Facilities emitting ≥25,000 tCO2e per year. All electricity imported from specified sources connected to a specific generator with emissions over 25,000 tCO2e per year is covered. All emissions reported for imported electricity from unspecified sources are considered to be above the threshold and are covered using a default emissions factor.
OPT-IN COVERED ENTITIES:A facility in one of the covered sectors that emits less than 25,000 tCO2e annually can voluntarily participate in the program. Opt-in entities are subject to all reporting, verification, enforcement, registration, and compliance obligations applicable to covered entities.
Upstream (buildings and transport); point source (industry, in-state power generation); imported electricity at the point of first delivery onto California’s electricity grid.
*Approximately 330 registered covered/opt-in entities. These entities represent approximately 400 registered emitting sources/facilities.
Allowance Allocation & Revenue
Allowances are distributed via free allocation, free allocation with consignment, and auction.
Industrial facilities receive free allowances to minimize carbon leakage. For nearly all industrial facilities, the amount is determined by product-specific benchmarks, recent production volumes, a cap adjustment factor, and an assistance factor based on assessment of leakage risk.
Leakage risk is divided into “low”, “medium”, and “high” risk tiers based on levels of emissions intensity and trade exposure for each specific industrial sector.
FIRST COMPLIANCE PERIOD (2013-2014): The “Cap-and-Trade Regulation” as adopted in 2011 set assistance factors of 100% for the first compliance period, regardless of leakage risk.
SECOND COMPLIANCE PERIOD AND BEYOND (2015-2030): For facilities with medium leakage risk, the original regulation included an assistance factor decline to 75% for the second compliance period and to 50% for the third. For facilities with low leakage risk, it included an assistance factor decline to 50% for the second compliance period and to 30% for the third. However, amendments to the Cap-and-Trade Regulation made in 2013 delayed these assistance factor declines by one compliance period. Pursuant to AB 398 adopted in 2017, all assistance factors were changed to 100% through 2030, citing continued vulnerability to carbon leakage. There is no cap on the total amount of industrial allocation, but the formula for allocation includes a declining cap adjustment factor to gradually reduce allocation in line with the overall cap trajectory.
Free allocation is also provided for transition assistance to public wholesale water entities, legacy contract generators, universities, public service facilities, and, during the period 2018-2024, waste-to-energy facilities.
FREE ALLOCATION WITH CONSIGNMENT: Electrical distribution utilities and natural gas suppliers receive free allocation on behalf of their ratepayers. Natural gas and electric utilities must use the allowance value for ratepayer benefit and for GHG emissions reductions. All allowances allocated to investor-owned electric utilities and an annually increasing percentage of allowances allocated to natural gas suppliers must be consigned for sale at the state’s regular quarterly auctions. Publicly owned electric utilities can choose to consign freely allocated allowances to auction or use them for their own compliance needs.
In 2022, ~65% of total California-issued vintage 2022 allowances were made available through auction, which included allowances owned by CARB (~38%) and allowances consigned to auction by utilities (~27%).
Unsold allowances in past auctions are gradually released for sale at auction after two consecutive auctions are held in which the clearing price is higher than the minimum price. However, if any of these allowances remain unsold after 24 months, they will be placed into CARB’s price ceiling reserve or into the two lower reserve tiers (see ‘Market Stability Provisions’ section). To date, 37 million allowances originally designated for auction have been placed in reserves through these provisions.
SINCE BEGINNING OF PROGRAM: USD 22.25 billion
COLLECTED IN 2022: USD 4.03 billion*
*Does not include revenue from auctioning of consigned allowances.
Revenue from auction of California-owned allowances:
Most of California’s revenue goes to the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, of which at least 35% must benefit disadvantaged and low-income communities. The funds are then distributed as California Climate Investments, which support projects that deliver significant environmental, economic, and public health benefits across the state. As of May 2022, USD 11.4 billion has been invested in over 560,000 projects, with expected GHG reductions of 79 MtCO2e. Over USD 5.4 billion has reached disadvantaged and low-income communities.
Revenue from auction of utility-owned allowances: Investor-owned electric utilities and natural gas suppliers are allocated allowances, a portion of which must be consigned to auction. Auction proceeds must be used for ratepayer benefit and for GHG emissions reductions.
Flexibility & Linking
Banking is allowed, subject to a holding limit on allowances to which all entities in the system are held. The holding limit is based on the year’s cap and decreases annually. Entities may also be eligible for a limited exemption from the holding limit based on their emissions levels to support meeting annual compliance obligations or obligations at the end of a three-year compliance period.
Borrowing future vintage allowances is not allowed.
Offsets, issued by CARB or by the authority of a linked cap-and-trade system, are compliance instruments under the California Cap-and-Trade Program.
QUALITATIVE LIMITS: Currently, offset credits originating from projects carried out according to one of six compliance offset protocols are accepted as compliance units:
- US forest projects;
- urban forest projects;
- livestock projects (methane management);
- ozone-depleting substances projects;
- mine methane capture projects; and
- rice cultivation projects.
Offset credits issued by jurisdictions linked with California (i.e., Québec) are eligible to be used to satisfy a California entity’s compliance obligation, subject to the quantitative limits described below.
To ensure environmental integrity, California’s offset program has incorporated the principle of buyer liability. The state may invalidate an offset credit that is later determined to have not met the requirements of an offset protocol because of double counting, over-issuance, or regulatory non-conformance. The entity that surrendered that offset credit for compliance must then substitute a valid compliance instrument for the invalidated offset credit.
For 2013-2020 emissions, entities could meet up to 8% of their obligations using offset credits. For emissions after 2020, entities are subject to new offset usage limits established by AB 398. The share of offsets that can be used to fulfil the compliance obligation decreases to 4% per year for 2021-2025 emissions, before increasing to 6% for 2026-2030 emissions.
In addition to setting new quantitative limits on the use of offsets, AB 398 set new limits on the types of offset credits that can be used to fulfil compliance obligations. Starting with compliance obligations for 2021 emissions, no more than 50% of any entity’s offset usage can come from offset projects that do not provide direct environmental benefits to the state (DEBS).
Projects located within California are automatically considered to provide DEBS. Offset projects implemented outside of California may still result in DEBS, based on scientific evidence and project data provided. For example, a forest project outside California has been determined to provide benefits within California by improving the quality of water flowing through the state. Recent regulatory amendments specify the criteria used for determining DEBS.
California’s program linked with Québec’s ETS in January 2014. The two expanded their joint market by linking with Ontario in January 2018 until the termination of Ontario’s system in mid-2018.
Except for the year following the last year of a compliance period, compliance instruments equal to 30% of the previous year’s verified emissions must be surrendered annually, by 1 November (or the first business day thereafter). Compliance instruments equal to all remaining emissions must be surrendered by 1 November (or the first business day thereafter) of the year following the last year of a compliance period.
REPORTING FREQUENCY: Annually
VERIFICATION: Emissions data reports and their underlying data require annual verification by an independent third-party for all entities covered by the program.
FRAMEWORK:Reporting is required for most emitters at or above 10,000 tCO2e per year. They must implement internal audits, quality assurance, and control systems for the reporting program and the reported data.
A covered entity that fails to surrender sufficient compliance instruments to cover its verified GHG emissions on either an annual surrender deadline or a compliance period surrender deadline is automatically assessed as an untimely surrender obligation. It is then required to surrender the missing compliance instruments as well as three additional compliance instruments for each compliance instrument it failed to surrender.
Failure to meet this untimely surrender obligation would subject the entity to substantial financial penalties for its noncompliance, pursuant to “California Health and Safety Code” Section 38580.
Separate and substantial penalties apply to mis- or non-reporting under the “Regulation for the Mandatory Reporting of Greenhouse Gas Emissions”.
MARKET PARTICIPATION: Covered entities, opt-in covered entities, and Voluntarily Associated Entities can participate in the program. Voluntarily Associated Entities are approved individuals or entities that intend to:
purchase, hold, sell, or retire compliance instruments but are not covered under the program;
operate an offset project registered with CARB; or
- provide clearing services and derivative clearing services as qualified entities.
Voluntarily Associated Entities must be in the United States and have an approved Compliance Instrument Tracking System Service (CITSS) account. Additional eligibility criteria apply, including for individual market participants.
Primary: Allowances are made available through a sealed-bid auctions. State-owned and consigned allowances are offered through quarterly allowance auctions organized jointly with Québec. Auctions are administered by WCI, Inc.
Secondary: Allowances, offsets, and financial derivatives are traded in the secondary market on the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), CME group, and Nodal Exchange platforms. Any company qualified to access these platforms can trade directly or through a future commission merchant. Companies can also trade directly over the counter but must have a CITSS account to take delivery of compliance instruments.
LEGAL STATUS OF ALLOWANCES: Allowances are defined as limited tradable authorizations to emit up to one tCO2e. According to the California “Code of Regulations”, an allowance does not constitute property or bestow property rights and cannot limit the authority of the regulator to terminate or limit such authorization to emit.
Auction Reserve Price: USD 22.21 per allowance in 2023. The auction reserve price increases annually by 5% plus inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index.
Reserve: Some allowances from each annual cap are placed in an Allowance Price Containment Reserve (APCR). Prior to amendments mandated by AB 398, these allowances were spread across three reserve tiers in an earlier APCR. Pursuant to AB 398, from 2021 onward, these allowances have been placed into two price tiers and a price ceiling.
Specifically, AB 398 directed where allowances from the earlier APCR would be distributed. Two-thirds of those allowances were spread evenly across the two price tiers. The remaining one-third (which had been spread evenly across the original three price tiers), plus unsold allowances that had been transferred into the APCR (about 37 million to date), have been placed into the price ceiling. In addition, the Cap-and-Trade Regulation also set aside portions of annual 2021-2030 allowance caps for the two lower price tiers.
Although no reserve sale has been held to date, CARB will offer one if auction settlement prices from the preceding quarter are greater than or equal to 60% of the lowest price tier. CARB will also offer the third quarter reserve sale just before the compliance obligation deadline.
At the price ceiling, a covered entity can purchase allowances (or, if no allowances remain, “price ceiling units”) up to the amount of its current unfulfilled emissions obligation. The revenues from the sale of price ceiling units will be used to purchase real, permanent, quantifiable, verifiable, enforceable, and additional emissions reductions on at least a tonne for tonne basis. Sales at the price ceiling will only be conducted if no allowances remain at the two lower reserve tiers and a covered entity has demonstrated that it does not have sufficient compliance instruments in its accounts for that year’s compliance event.
In 2023, the two cost containment reserve tiers and the price ceiling are set at USD 51.92, USD 66.71 and USD 81.50, respectively. Tier prices and the price ceiling increase by 5% plus inflation (as measured by the Consumer Price Index).
California Air Resources Board: Responsible for the design and implementation of the Cap-and-Trade Program.
Western Climate Initiative, Inc.: Non-profit organization that provides cost-effective administrative and technical solutions for supporting the coordinated development and implementation of participating jurisdictions’ GHG emissions trading programs, such as administering auctions and maintaining the system registry.
Pursuant to requirements in existing legislation (AB 32, AB 197, and AB 398), CARB must update the “California Climate Change Scoping Plan” at least every five years and must provide annual reports to various committees of the Legislature and the Board. The Scoping Plan provides updates on progress toward climate targets and lays out strategies to achieve them, including the role and level of effort accorded to different programs in the state’s portfolio approach to climate mitigation.
Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32)
2018 amendments to the 2021-2030 period
Current regulation can be found on the CARB website