Earlier this year, Guardian released an expose about forest carbon offsets, in particular about a handful of projects and brought a bit of an uproar in the industry. While it created more awareness about carbon credits and concerns around the quality, methodology around calculation of the emissions reductions or how the “offsets” can really be quantified, there seem to be a lot of misconception remaining around carbon markets and how they work.
First, we need to recognise that there are compliance markets and voluntary markets for carbon. And while we may sometimes call them all ‘carbon credits’, the concepts are vastly different. In compliance settings such as the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), the object that is traded are actually permits or allowances. These are regulatory objects that are created arbitrarily by regulators. Basically, when the regulator says the industry is allowed to emit 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, this 100 units becomes permits or allowances. Each unit represents the permission to emit a unit of carbon dioxide linked to a time period based on regulation.
On the other hand, there are voluntary markets; and these are where the majority of carbon credits that can constitute conceptually ‘offsets’. Putting that notion aside first, we need to recognise that those ‘credits’ are conceptually different from emission allowances. In reality, those are supposed to be like merit points awarded for good behaviour – of not emitting carbon dioxide. They are given to projects that protects rainforests, improve efficiency, manage waste more carefully, switch fuel from fossil to low-carbon ones and so on.
The manner for calculating these merit points are complex and set by various standard bodies that are structured as non-profits. In and of themselves, the credits when valued in the market encourages more of the activities that generate them. And because they inevitably entail some kind of emission reduction or even carbon removal (through some sort of sequestration), when companies buy and then retire them, they are basically trying to ‘offset’ their own emissions. The calculation of the amount of merit points was essentially what the Guardian article referenced was really criticising.
The projects in and of themselves are voluntary; and those buying the credits are not really forced to buy them by any regulators. That said, companies have been buying them in order to ‘offset’ their actual emissions and then gain the ability to pass of their products as ‘carbon neutral’ – not because they rejigged the supply chains to no longer emit carbon but because they used the credits/merit points off those projects to neutralise the demerit points they had from emitting carbon. The problem is when this is the value of the carbon emission reduction – so that companies have the ability to emit more, we really wonder if that is worthwhile.
Using the market mechanisms to spur production of something tends to be quite easy but to reduce it might be harder. This is why we have the government, public services such as the police and defence force and not leave these things to the market. Otherwise, the police could just offer bounties for anyone to catch the criminals and so on. Carbon markets are interesting but further regulation and a proper understanding of how we want to value emission reductions and count them is vital.