COMMENT: Quality counts – scaling voluntary offsetting the right way

Published 14:46 on January 28, 2021  /  Last updated at 17:10 on January 28, 2021  /  Africa, Americas, Asia Pacific, Aviation/CORSIA, China, China's Offset Market, Climate Talks, Conversations, EMEA, International, Nature-based, Other APAC, Paris Article 6, South & Central, Views, Voluntary Market  /  No Comments

Owen Hewlett of Gold Standard welcomes the Taskforce to Scale the Voluntary Carbon Market's intention to make sure companies can take responsibility for their emissions, but argues that scale alone should not be the marker of success.

By Owen Hewlett, Chief Technical Officer, Gold Standard

Addressing the climate emergency requires an enormous ramp up of climate action and finance. For this reason, Gold Standard welcomes the Taskforce to Scale the Voluntary Carbon Market’s intention to make sure companies can take responsibility for their emissions and invest in climate action and we have engaged constructively as a member of the Taskforce towards this end.

Yet scale on its own is not the marker of success; it must go hand-in-hand with quality.

The key now is to scale voluntary carbon offsetting in the right way, not just to increase the market for its own sake. 

It is worth restating core principles of carbon markets. Carbon finance is meant to be catalytic—to enable that which would not otherwise be possible with traditional finance. It’s fit-for-purpose for some types of activities, not all climate action. Carbon finance was also originally conceived as a mechanism to deliver development outcomes, not just climate mitigation.

Gold Standard was founded to ensure that carbon markets reflect the highest level of environmental integrity and contribute to sustainable development, and we have brought our nearly 20 years of experience to the work of the Taskforce to ensure that these principles remain in place as the voluntary market scales. There are places where we see this reflected in the published report, but others where detail is lacking.

We share here the main points where Gold Standard either disagrees with elements of the report or sees as most critical to resolve in the next phase of the Taskforce work if the market is to have the integrity needed for impactful climate action.

  1. Standardised contracts must provide sufficient clarity to incentivise high impact projects. While the Taskforce highlights the importance of safeguards, stakeholder inclusivity, and SDG benefits, we don’t yet know how these will be operationalised. The Taskforce report summary relegates SDG benefits to “additional attributes” and suggests that they can just be traded via over-the-counter transactions. This risks crowding out vulnerable community-based projects, particularly those in Least Developed Countries where impact is often highest. Thus, the work of the Core Carbon Principles working group in phase 2 is critical to make best use of carbon finance.
  2. Project-based REDD+ credits have no place in the voluntary carbon market. Avoiding deforestation and degradation is critical to reach climate targets and the broader sustainable development agenda, and Gold Standard recognises the need for an urgent increase in finance to tackle this. However, challenges related to environmental integrity make them unsuitable for carbon credit issuance. These concerns were raised by many stakeholders during the consultation process but were not taken on board by the Taskforce. This is therefore an opportunity for a high ambition coalition to work to catalyse climate and development finance for REDD+ efforts as more appropriate and effective means to conserve standing forests.
  3. We need a thoughtful transition to corresponding adjustments (CAs) where they are needed. Let’s be clear about what offsetting is: it is a promise to your stakeholders that you have compensated for your emissions so the net effect on the atmosphere is neutralised. Civil society and academics have clearly demonstrated that avoiding double claiming is required for credible offset or compensation claims. Some voluntary standards and market proponents now argue that double claiming doesn’t matter, even those that have had requirements in place for years to avoid double claiming in markets like Australia, which they now presumably claim never made sense and will cancel. This will no doubt make them more popular in the industry in the short term. However, this abdication of responsibility undermines credibility and trust, which could lead to another market collapse. Gold Standard’s position is to recognise, as the Paris Agreement does, countries’ “respective capabilities” by implementing corresponding adjustments first in the developed world, where capacity exists to operationalise the process.

A high-integrity voluntary carbon market that delivers climate and development outcomes is a powerful tool. But without integrity, voluntary offsetting is not just less effective; it has the potential to be actively harmful. Gold Standard will continue to engage in the next phase of the Taskforce’s work, advocating for integrity to be held in as high a regard as scale as its work progresses. But as the Taskforce has left vital questions on integrity unanswered, it’s now time for civil society to provide clear definition on how to best direct finance for maximum impact toward climate security and sustainable development.

As Chief Technical Officer at Gold Standard, Owen is responsible for the development of all innovations, standards, methodologies and tools at the voluntary project certifier. Owen led the development of the ‘Gold Standard for the Global Goals’, a first of kind impact-standard focused on the Sustainable Development Goals.