Friday, 26 April 2013

Voluntary Offsets and the Backloading Brouhaha

My previous posts about "backloading" and the EU ETS have focused on the implications for the compliance markets in Europe and elsewhere. In compliance markets, government regulators set the rules governing the supply of emission reduction allowances and offset credits.  They also govern demand by setting the emissions targets that firms must meet by making internal reductions or purchasing permits and offsets.

Now I'd like to focus on what the backloading debate means for the voluntary carbon markets.  The short answer is that backloading will have little direct impact, but the reasons are worth a longer discussion.

The voluntary market is much smaller than its government-created sibling, but it is difficult to overestimate its importance. The voluntary market is self-regulating.  Its carbon offset credits are issued by independent standards bodies, and an increasing number of its largest market makers  follow a Code of Practice governing how they do business.

This self regulation makes the voluntary markets exceptionally flexible and a source of innovation that helps improve the slower and more bureacratic compliance markets.  All four of the protocols initially approved in California's cap-and-trade system were developed initially under the Climate Action Reserve, a voluntary carbon standard. A number of the carbon credit innovations that were pioneered by bodies such as the Gold Standard and the Verified Carbon Standard have allowed the United Nations carbon credit system to expand beyond large, industrial project types like refrigerant destruction, large hydropower and waste heat recovery. The project types favored by the voluntary carbon market, like clean cookstoves, village lighting, forest conservation and water purification can deliver greater sustainable development and have helped bring the benefits of carbon finance to poorer nations.

Voluntary market innovation is not limited to the projects. It's notable that California's fledgeling carbon market California has decided to use for its cap-and-trade transactions two private sector registries that were created for  the voluntary carbon market to - due in large part to their responsiveness, quality and cost-effectiveness.  And when the British government launched a short-lived effort to develop its own voluntary offset quality scheme, the market launched a more thorough and far-reaching system, twelve months faster, and for only one-tenth of the cost.

But perhaps the most important point that helps understand what makes the voluntary market special is that its carbon offset buyers choose to buy carbon credits! Voluntary market buyers take action of their own accord beyond or in advance of legislation to tackle their climate change impact. 

This difference more than anything helps explain why the backloading brouhaha has little direct impact on the voluntary market. In the compliance market, emitters tend to reduce their emissions just enough to avoid paying penalties. If they cannot meet their reduction targets, they tend to buy just enough offset credits (called CERs) and allowances (EUAs) to avoid those penalties. And when those firms find they have exceeded their reduction targets? They sell their surplus allowances, even if their footprint is still far above zero.  The economic recession made it very easy for many companies in the EU ETS to meet their reduction targets, nearly eliminating demand for allowances and offsets.  Supply and demand - too many permits and insufficient demand drives CER and EUA prices in the compliance markets towards zero.

Compare that to buyer behaviour in the voluntary carbon market.  The demand drivers for carbon credits could not be more different. Here companies pledge to reduce their net emissions - often
to zero - through a combination of internal reductions and voluntary offset credits. When voluntary customers fail to meet their reduction targets, they must buy more carbon credits to make up the difference.  When they exceed those targets, they buy fewer credits - but they keep buying.  Their reduction goals are sufficiently ambitious that it would be nearly impossible to reduce demand for offset credits to zero - at least for the foreseeable future.

Buyer behaviour in the voluntary market differs from the compliance market in another way.  Absent the carrot and stick of government regulation, buyers use their carbon management programmes as a way to demonstrate good citizenship.  As a result, many companies seek carbon offset credits from projects that do much more than reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Emission reduction projects that improve local livelihoods help corporate offset customers achieve their broader CSR goals.  After all, which would you rather have on the cover of your CSR report, a photo of an industrial gas destruction project, or a photo of a family enjoying the benefits of solar powered lighting and safe drinking water? It is the value of these co-benefits that helps maintain prices in the voluntary carbon market, even during an economic recession.

With such different motivations for buyer behaviour compared to the compliance market, it is little wonder that the impact of policy measures like backloading would have little direct impact on the voluntary market.

However, compliance market policy failures can have an indirect impact on prices in the voluntary market. Actors in the compliance market have begun to take notice of the relative buoyancy of voluntary prices.  In September 2012 the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change included the following statement in its meeting notes:

"Project participants and others engaged in the [Clean Development Mechanism] will soon be able to voluntarily cancel their CERs into an account in the CDM registry at the UNFCCC secretariat in Bonn, Germany. This could encourage expanded use of CERs for voluntary emission reduction, such as by companies using credits as part of a social responsibility programme, by event organizers wanting to offset their emissions, or even by individuals wishing to reduce their carbon footprint."

Just a few months later Christiana Figueres, the head of the UNFCCC, made the following Tweet:

It appears that a number of people are hoping that the relatively buoyant voluntary market can support CDM  by serving as a source of demand for compliance credits.  This is a great idea in theory.  However, the primary CDM market was created to feed national and regional compliance schemes.  The promise of CDM has mobilised a tremendous amount of climate finance to feed the compliance market.  In 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, CDM was five times larger than the voluntary carbon market.  Since that time, we have seen record issuances of carbon credits on the CDM.

It would be wonderful if demand in the voluntary market expanded rapidly enough to absorb the surplus from the CDM (or at least from the CDM's more community-oriented and renewable energy projects).  The short-term impact of such an influx, however, would be to overwhelm completely the absorptive capacity of the voluntary market, driving prices towards zero and removing incentives to develop new and innovative voluntary projects.  It would be akin to fitting all the passengers from the Titanic into one lifeboat.  Rather than rescuing the compliance market, we would damage the voluntary carbon market, perhaps irreparably.

It's clear, then, that for all its inherent strengths, the voluntary carbon market remains vulnerable to poorly executed attempts to rescue elements of the compliance market. The most robust and sustainable fix for the compliance market's woes remains in the realm of politics. More specifically, national and regional leaders must show the courage to set ambitious reduction targets that accelerate the pace of action to fight climate change.  The depressed prices on the EU ETS show that companies have been able to meet their current emissions reductions obligations more easily than we ever thought possible.  Deepening emission reduction targets will accelerate the transition to a lower-carbon economy and strengthen the carbon markets by driving demand for compliance carbon credits and provide a sustained boost to prices.

Meanwhile, the voluntary carbon markets will continue doing what they do best: driving innovation and providing a vehicle for companies who want to take action beyond compliance to demonstrate their environmental leadership.

(Jamal Gore is Managing Director of carbon management firm Carbon Clear.)