Counting the Cost

Can carbon trading bring world’s biggest polluters to heel?

How much is needed to save planet from climate change and can carbon trading help? Plus, big data discrimination.

Scientists suggest the planet may have crossed a series of tipping points making global warming unstoppable.

The European Union has declared a climate emergency, urging nations to cut net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. And the United Nations believes we need to spend $48 trillion by 2050 to save the planet.

Carbon trading is one method some are citing as a solution to the climate crisis. Many people have already encountered some form of taxes or extra charges for using plastic bags, coffee cups and even optional carbon footprint charges for flight purchases. But carbon trading is becoming a growing market for the biggest polluters.

The value of traded global markets for carbon dioxide allowances soared 250 percent to a record high of 144 billion euros ($160bn) last year, according to Refinitiv.

There are 45 national and 25 sub-national markets with governments trying to set a price for a tonne of carbon. Companies can buy certificates to offset their emissions. To avoid penalties, companies can buy the emission credits of others. For example, Tesla sold emission credits to Fiat Chrysler and General Motors, making $1.7bn since 2012.

But how successful carbon trading becomes really depends on China, the world’s biggest polluter. While it has been the biggest investor in renewable energy, it has stepped up spending on coal-powered plants at home and abroad.

China has yet to launch its carbon trading market. Beijing would like richer nations to do and spend more than poorer nations for past emissions. And it looks like Europe will push for a new green deal that could see the European Investment Bank spend a trillion dollars on shifting the economy to cleaner forms of energy.

Anthony Hobley, cochair of the advisory board Carbon Tracker, says it has been a very rocky road to get emission rates down globally and that carbon market trading usually sits alongside other policy tools like product standards and regulations around energy efficiency.

“Carbon market schemes tend to operate within a closed system, within a bubble so you set a cap for your economy and the carbon market is just one of the policy tools that you are using to drive down emissions,” Hobley explains.

The new head of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, also wants the bank to take into consideration climate change when it is making monetary policy decisions.

“When you have been in the IMF and World Bank meeting in Washington a couple of weeks ago, there’s a clear sense something ought to be done. The ECB is acknowledging that they want to support those green policies,” Hubertus Vath from the Frankfurt Financial Center tells Al Jazeera.

Big data and algorithms that discriminate against women and people of colour

Every time you use your phone, computer, an app or a website, you are leaving a digital footprint that tells a story about you. And that can be used to sell services back to you.

When you watch films or listen to music the data can be used by algorithms to make helpful suggestions for other material you may want to watch. But it can also give away your sex, age and race.

It is that manipulation of data that is starting to raise concerns because it can be used to discriminate against women and people of colour.

Tech entrepreneur David Hansson claimed Apple’s new credit card gave him 20 times the credit limit than his wife. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak tweeted he had a similar experience with the card operated by Goldman Sachs.

Now a Wall Street regulator has launched a probe into possible discrimination and the New York Department of Financial Services also opened an investigation into healthcare provider UnitedHealth Group after an algorithm allegedly favoured white patients over black patients.

The so-called information economy is also becoming a huge issue for the EU. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Europe to seize control of its own data from the likes of Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

Frederike Kaltheuner, a Mozilla tech policy fellow, tells Al Jazeera that the tech industry faces large problems including a lack of diversity as well as a general lack of accountability.

“We tend to treat the sector as something that is fundamentally different from everything else. We don’t expect tobacco companies to self-regulate, we don’t expect ethics guidelines to guide the oil industry, and yet when it comes to tech, we tend to agree on these very fluffy standards,” Kaltheuner says.