Air Quality California cap and trade board game

Published on August 8th, 2013 | by Silvio Marcacci


California Cap And Trade Isn’t A Game — Except When It Is.

August 8th, 2013 by  

California’s cap-and-trade market is serious business, with high stakes for the future of our planet – it’s no game. Except when it is.

Gamification is often used to simplify complex concepts and make them easily understood, and that’s just what the San Francisco Public Press has done with cap-and-trade.

Make Money, Save The Planet” is a theoretical board game designed to teach people how the system works, just as California’s cap-and-trade program starts to develop into a major emissions-reduction force with potential linkages to scores of other carbon markets in development worldwide.

Cutting Emissions Instead of Building Empires

The board game closely resembles Harper Brothers’ classic Monopoly, complete with Governor Jerry Brown’s star turn as the iconic Rich Uncle Pennybags. But instead of trying to build up an empire of rental properties, up to eight players compete to make the most profit before the statewide carbon cap is reached.

Players start by choosing a die-cast piece representing a polluting industry. They then get $1,000 “dollars,” 10 carbon allowances (represented by a smokestack piece), and properties that can’t be bought or sold are allocated evenly among players.

Each player rolls dice to move around the board, and loses one allowance every time they pass “Go.” As players move around the board, they must decide to comply with the trading system by buying additional smokestacks, innovations (represented by lightbulbs), or offsets (represented by trees). When allowances minus offsets reach half of total starting amount, the carbon cap is reached and the game is over.

California cap and trade board game

Make Money, Save The Planet illustration via San Francisco Public Press

Gameplay Mirrors Actual Market Functions

Sounds simple, right? But as with real-life cap-and-trade system functions, actual transactions get a little complicated. For instance, when one player lands on a property that holds another player’s smokestack, the visitor pays the owner $10, plus another $10 per smokestack on the property.

The offset market works in a similar fashion, with the price per offset determined by the same price the last smokestack was sold for at auction.  Sale proceeds go to the middle of the board, representing out-of-state environmental projects like planting trees or reducing methane emissions. While trees don’t turn a profit, they do allow players to keep one smokestack when they pass “Go” in return for handing in one tree.

Innovations in this game also represent an interesting function of the cap-and-trade market. Players have the option to purchase a lightbulb piece for $20 when they land on a research and development square, and they’re placed on one of the player’s owned squares. Each time another player lands on that square, the owner gets to charge $10 profit from the visitor – fitting considering California’s status as the “epicenter of the US clean tech market.”

With all these costs, players can run out of cash quickly – that’s where the auction system comes into play. Four auction squares are spaced around the board to represent seasonal system auctions, and when one player lands on an auction space, they can declare how many smokestacks they want to buy and sell. Whoever bids highest sets the smokestack sale price, and players must buy or sell the number of smokestacks they declared at the clearing price.

Beyond Today’s Cap And Trade Successes

While “Make Money, Save The Planet” exists only in theory so far, California’s actual cap-and-trade market becomes more of a functioning reality every day. 50 million allowances have been sold across the system’s first three auctions, and the most recent auction sold out of all available 2013 allowances at a record price.

In fact, by the time the cap-and-trade board game makes it into production, the makers will probably need to go back to the drawing board to include links to international markets. After a short procedural delay, California will link with Quebec’s cap-and-trade system in January 2014, and state regulators have signed agreements to develop their system and share best practices with China’s just-launched Shenzen provincial market and Australia’s existing carbon trading system.

Since California’s cap-and-trade system is doing so well among today’s decision makers, the board game creators hope to reach a younger audience.

“I wish that teenagers who are just trying to figure out how capitalism and the economy works, who are going to be the decision makers when climate change really takes effect, incorporate this into their psyche and really get an intuitive sense of how important the environment is and how important it is to include things like carbon dioxide into the economic calculus and not just consider them externalities,” said Michael Stoll, San Francisco Public Press executive director. “The economy has to eventually reflect that.”

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About the Author

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate policy public relations company based in Oakland, CA.

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