Buying our way out of trouble

Passion Blog Pro Review

Entrepreneurship Guides

Get Instant Access

Most people in wealthier parts of the world have come across invitations to calculate their carbon footprint, offset their carbon emissions or go on a 'low-carbon diet'. Many large firms now do the same in order to market themselves as 'carbon neutral', often as part of broader climate change Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies as we saw in Chapter 3. Offsets are now routinely sold to firms and individuals, in particular to offset emissions from air travel. Consumers are sold products that both alleviate their sense of guilt and claim to contribute to low-carbon development projects in poor countries. The fact that poorer countries will bear the worst effects of climate change adds to the feeling of culpability. Journalist Mark Honigsbaum writes:

'Flying over Kenya's Rift Valley ... it's hard not to feel a pang of guilt ... I feel guilty because as a privileged westerner with an addiction to air travel I am at this very moment spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at the rate of about 1kg a minute, emissions that, according to climate change experts, may be contributing to Kenya's faltering rains.'1

Offsets offer the prospect of compensating directly those whose livelihoods are threatened as a result of your actions.

Most European airlines and a growing number of North American ones have direct links to one or other of the firms dealing in carbon offsets, so that when you buy a ticket from their website, at the end of the process the website asks if you would like to offset your carbon emissions. If you tick yes, it takes you to their offset provider to calculate the emissions, and thus the price for offsetting. Swissair and

1 M. Honigsbaum, 'Is carbon offsetting the solution (or part of the problem)?' The Observer, 10 June 2007.

Virgin are linked with myclimate, SAS and others are linked to the CarbonNeutral Company, and so on. On Virgin Atlantic, you can even purchase the offset on the plane with your duty free.

These markets are the result of entrepreneurial activity by environmental NGOs as well as private firms spotting opportunities for new market development. Many of these firms operate also in the carbon markets established by governments or under the Kyoto Protocol. But they have also been instrumental in establishing these private, or 'voluntary' carbon markets. Indeed, the two sorts of market are often connected, as projects that fail to qualify for registration with the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) may end up on the voluntary market that imposes less stringent criteria. What happens in the broader climate regime in terms of targets, approved methodologies and the like, sends strong market signals to actors involved in voluntary markets. For those involved in voluntary and compliance markets such as offset organisations like EcoSecurities, a workable national and international framework of regulation is hugely important.2

What started as a small sector led by a few entrepreneurs has attracted the interest and capital of some of the largest players in the global financial community, such as J. P. Morgan who acquired the offset firm Climate Care. This chapter charts the story of how these markets came about and what issues they raise, as well as asking what might be their contribution to climate capitalism.

the birth of offsets

Promoters of the voluntary offset markets never tire of pointing out they precede the regulatory markets. The first such transaction was in 1989 when AES, a US electricity company, invested in a forestry plantation (of pine and eucalyptus) in Guatemala to offset the emissions from its new coal-fired power plant in Connecticut. But most of these markets emerged during the 1990s.

According to the mythology, sitting in a field at Glastonbury Festival in 1996, Clash singer Joe Strummer and Dan Morell came

2 According to Carbon Finance, in 2007 EcoSecurities revised its expected number of carbon credits downwards by a quarter because of the slowness of getting the project approval from the Executive Board and its share price subsequently dropped by 50%. Carbon Finance, 'EcoSecurities' woes prompt CER rethink', Carbon Finance, 20 November, 2007. See fm?section+lead&action+view&id=10846. Cited in H. Lovell, 'Conceptualizing climate governance beyond the international regime: The case of carbon offset organisations', Tyndall Programme One Workshop, Oxford, 19-20 May 2008.

up with the brainwave which became Future Forests and later the CarbonNeutral Company. They sat discussing problems of deforestation and climate change, with Strummer musing about the impacts music events like Glastonbury, as well as tours by bands, have on these problems. The two came up with the idea of a company which would enable people to fund forestry projects in order to compensate for the emissions that they produced in their daily lives. While large firms like AES could easily enough find a way to invest in projects to offset its emissions, individuals and smaller firms need well-organised intermediaries to work between them and the projects they might want to finance to offset their emissions.

It is Richard Sandor, nevertheless, who is referred to by many as the 'father of carbon markets'. Along with a few others, at the beginning of concern about climate change at the end of the 1980s, he started to think about the possibility of using financial markets to mitigate climate change. Sandor decided to create a market outside governmental regulatory frameworks. This became the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX). As the historical home of some of the world's most important commodity markets, Chicago was an appropriate birthplace for this initiative.

Work on this started in 2000 and the Exchange was launched in 2003. It is a member organisation, where large corporations who join agree to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as a condition of membership. All members who have joined to date have agreed to reduce their emissions by 6% by 2010 (roughly tracking the Kyoto target, although the baseline year is not 1990, using instead the average of emissions between 1998 and 2001). The CCX describes their commitments as 'voluntary legally binding commitments'. Member firms can then meet their target by internal reductions or purchasing credits from other members or through offset projects organised through the exchange. It mirrors, therefore, the structure of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), but at the same time operates as the infrastructure of the market - the site where all its participants meet. The CCX started with just US and Canadian firms (like Ford, DuPont and Motorola), but now has firms participating from other countries, notably Australia, China and India. It has also established the European Climate Exchange, which operates as a registry and exchange in the EU ETS. More recently, in June 2008, the Montreal Climate Exchange started futures trading on the GHG emissions credits due to be given out in the Canadian government's emissions trading system. Some firms have done very well out of these systems. Climate Exchange, which describes itself as the world's leading specialist exchange for trading emissions, has seen its share price soar from $5.50 to $21.50 within a year, bringing a market value in excess of $828 million.3

Other entrepreneurs embraced the idea of offsets as a win-win opportunity to promote conservation and make money at the same time. The climate dimension was secondary. Their natural allies were groups working on forestry issues, such as Global Canopy, that were seeking new revenue streams for their work on forest conservation. Individual entrepreneurs also saw an opening. Dorjee Sun, for example, founder and head of Carbon Conservation spent many years trailing around Indonesia trying to persuade governors to guarantee forest protection in exchange for investments from carbon buyers.4 Despite meeting scepticism from the likes of Starbucks and failed attempts to persuade E-bay to set up virtual trading places, he eventually succeeded in forming a carbon-credits-for-forests partnership with Merrill Lynch.5 The calculation was that credits bought now will be more valuable in the future, especially if UN negotiators could be persuaded to include Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) in the CDM. The Bali roadmap, agreed at the climate summit in Bali in 2007, opens up that clear possibility, and if the number of side events on the issue of REDD organised at the Copenhagen negotiations in December 2009 is anything to go by, the momentum behind this issue is irreversible, even if it is still unclear whether it will be linked to the CDM or just introduced as a separate measure.

The voluntary markets have grown spectacularly since 2001 when they started to emerge. They have gone from 3-5 megatonnes of carbon in 2004 to 65 megatonnes of carbon in 2007,6 tripling in one year in 2006-2007. They are currently worth $331 million including the CCX - without it, $258 million. By 2012 some estimate the voluntary

3 M. Milner, 'Cornering carbon: the broker that takes a cut when polluters pay', The Guardian, 28 April 2008.

4 BBC4 'The burning season', Documentary, 6 August 2008.

5 'Merill Lynch announces carbon credits-for-forest conservation partnership',, 6 December 2007. See http://news.mongabay. com/2007/1206-ml_carbon.html, accessed 3 January 2010.

6 R. Bayon, A. Hawn and K. Hamilton, Voluntary Carbon Markets (London: Earthscan, 2007), p. 14; K. Capoor and P. Ambrosi, State and Trends of the Carbon Market 2008 (Washington DC: World Bank, 2008), p. 41.

offset market will be worth $4 billion7 and by 2020 project-based carbon offsets could rise to $286 billion in value. In the UK alone, in 2007 there were more than 61 different organisations and companies working in this sector.8 Twenty-five per cent of the total traded volume is used directly to offset emissions, while 75 per cent changed hands and could be resold in the future. This is, nevertheless, a fraction of the size of regulated markets which dominate global carbon markets: trades in the voluntary markets in 2007 were worth $331 million, as opposed to around $62 billion in the EU ETS and CDM combined.

Nevertheless, voluntary markets are an interesting aspect of carbon markets for a number of reasons. The demand in the market comes predominantly from the 'wholesale' part of the trade rather than the 'retail' end - that is to say from companies (often large ones -such as HSBC which has made a big play of its involvement) rather than individuals. According to figures from the UK-based Tyndall Centre on Climate Change, private businesses currently account for 80% of the credits bought (50% to offset emissions, 29% for investment or resale), while individuals account for just 5% of the market.9 Despite the prominence in public debate of individuals offsetting their emissions through this market, therefore, they play only a minor role in the actual purchase of credits. Many firms have become big enough that there have been a number of buyouts by large finance houses, most prominently the aforementioned purchase of Climate Care by J. P. Morgan.

how the voluntary market works

The voluntary market has a structure which is fairly similar to the CDM market. Typically, there is a 'project developer' in a country in

7 Voluntary Carbon Standard Association, 'Leading market providers back new registry system for the Voluntary Carbon Standard: The Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) Association reveals the approval of 4 VCS registries', press release, Voluntary Carbon Standard Association, London, 2 July 2008, available at: http://, accessed 4 January 2010.

8 A. Bumpus and D. Liverman, 'Accumulation by decarbonisation and the governance of carbon offsets', Economic Geography, 84(2) (2008),127-55.

9 L. Whitmarsh and S. O'Neill, 'Carbon off-setting behaviour: catalyst for - or evasion of - low-carbon lifestyles?' Paper presented at the International Conference on Climate change impacts and adaptation: Dangerous rates of change, Exeter, 22-24 September 2009.

the South, and a 'project originator' in the North (like myclimate, CarbonNeutral, Climate Change Capital, CantorCO2e and so on). The latter channels money from companies and individuals in the North wishing to offset their emissions, into the Southern project developer, in return for carbon credits which are then passed on to the Northern investors. Sometimes offset providers put out calls for projects, offering carbon finance as a reward for the best projects in Southern countries. Making this market exchange possible are the verification firms (like SGS, DNV and Tüv Süd) who assess the project in terms of criteria set out by one of the main standards which have emerged (see below on standards). This enables the issuance of credits. For example, SGS-Qualifor inspects the forest and assesses the carbon sequestration levels for organisations such as FACE (a Dutch offset organisation) and Climate Care every five years.

There are also a series of intermediaries who act between the project originators (firms working directly with project developers to get the project going) and those purchasing credits. Though there is not the elaborate secondary market in the sale of VERs (Voluntary Emissions Reductions) that has emerged in the EU ETS or the CDM market, projects that fail to be certified through the CDM can still be approved for purchase in voluntary carbon markets. In the CCX (about a third of voluntary market transactions currently go through that exchange), there is then the layer of market exchange, and some derivatives trading (futures, etc.), which is made possible by the fact that it is an allowance-based system. Through specific emissions reductions projects, offsets are made into saleable units that can be quantified, owned and traded.

Business models in the voluntary markets broadly follow those in the CDM. Some firms operate as wholesalers, such as EcoSecurities, buying and selling on credits to other firms such as Climate Care. Both firms were formed in 1997 but play different roles in the market. Climate Care focuses more on the development and retail of voluntary and compliance carbon offsets. It handles anything from individuals' offset requests, to serving the needs of huge corporate clients like British Airways and Land Rover as well as ethical investors such as The Co-operative Bank that in 2005 paid Climate Care $414,000 to offset one-fifth of UK mortgage customers' homes.

But there are two main differences between the CDM and the voluntary markets in this context. First, in the voluntary markets, there is a much bigger link to the specific project that the money is invested in. Corporate buyers want to use this for good PR, so the nature of the specific project matters to them. In many contexts, the challenge for traders is to separate out the multiple values of a project for different buyers. As an example, the Climate Community and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA) suggest that simultaneously 'a reforestation project with obvious environmental and social co-benefits may attract private investors for the carbon credits, government money for sustainable development and conservation dollars for biodiversity activities'.10 Second, both because of this and the fact that there are no regulations driving the market, there is no secondary market for VERs like there is for CERs (Certified Emissions Reductions). No firm will want to buy credits for a project that someone else has already gained the green PR for.

It is worth giving a couple of examples of projects to illustrate how they work. In Western Sumatra, myclimate has financed a project to upgrade and bring back into production a small-scale hydroelectric plant, the Salido Kecil plant.11 The hydroelectric plant had become unviable due to subsidies given to diesel in the 1990s, but these subsidies were withdrawn after the financial crisis of 1997-1998. The aim of myclimate was to invest in the plant to bring it back into production, and thus reduce emissions from electricity generation, which is currently based largely on diesel in that region. The project involves a partnership between myclimate and PT Anggrek Mekar Sari (PT AMS), who own the plant. The former calculated the emissions reductions from the proposed project, based on the baseline assessment of what emissions would be without the project. They used energy consultants Ecofys to develop the Project Design Document (PDD - the same title is used in the voluntary market as in the CDM), which details the project and the emissions reductions in the form required by the Gold Standard. The PDD is then validated by a verification and certification company, in this case Tuv Nord, who assess it against Gold Standard rules about calculating baselines, additionality and so on. After it has been validated, the work will be done on the hydroplant, the implementation is monitored and then the emissions reductions verified (by a different verification company than that which did the validation). The Gold Standard will then issue VER certificates for the project

10 CCBA. Climate, Community and Biodiversity Project Design Standards,first edition (March 2005). See

11 myclimate, Salido Kecil Power plant Project Design Document. See http://www., accessed 6 November 2007.

which myclimate will pass on to its customers who have financed it through their purchase of offsets.

In a case like a small-scale hydroelectric plant, demonstrating the carbon abatement is relatively straightforward. The project itself emits no carbon, and can be expected to displace emissions from other sources of electricity based on fossil fuels. There are complexities of course. For example, how do we know it will reduce diesel consumption in electricity generation rather than simply add to the total amount of electricity consumed? How do we know that now that the diesel subsidies no longer exist, PT AMS would not be able to raise the finance to bring the plant back into production from general financial markets? The PDD attempts to deal with these sorts of issues.

But demonstrating additionality is much more difficult in many other cases. For example, Climate Care developed a project in the Guguletu township near Cape Town in South Africa. They distributed 10,000 compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFL) in order to increase the energy efficiency of consumption in the township. But it turned out that Eskom, the electricity company, was itself distributing CFL bulbs free in the township.12 The methodology required for the offset markets is in principle similar to that of the CDM. You calculate a baseline of what emissions would be without the project, you calculate what emissions will be with the project, and credits are issued based on the difference. In the end it relies on a judgement call about the plausibility of the claims made by the project developer, supported by the verifiers.

In the voluntary market, of course, much is made of the individual projects. Many offsetters like to know something about the project in which they are investing. So many voluntary market firms thus make the projects a very visible and clear part of their marketing. Most of the companies have parts of their website devoted to the projects they are working on, with the documentation, photographs, videos, testimonies by participants and so on, making clear the motivations of the buyers of credits.

carbon neutrality

The HSBC bank provides a good example of these motivations in the voluntary market. Its account ofthe high-profile decision to 'go carbon

12 K. Smith, The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins (Amsterdam: Carbon Trade Watch, 2007), p. 40.

neutral' reveals an interesting mix of philanthropic and marketing motives. On the one hand, the decision arose from pressure from a variety of sources, though notably not from regulators: 'the pressure to reduce our emissions wasn't overt but it did exist, from peers, from shareholders, from the NGOs we work with and from our own staff'.13 This aspect is made more obvious with the bank's financing of a variety of partnerships, working with the Climate Group, WWF, the Earthwatch Institute, among others, principally to develop its own employees into a 'green taskforce'. On the other hand, HSBC has sought to gain a first-mover advantage in the carbon market where they hope to 'gain a deeper insight into the emerging low-carbon economy and be exceptionally well placed to understand the needs of and opportunities for their clients'.14 The bank decided to build its own capacity in-house rather than rely on external brokers, in order to position themselves to profit from the carbon market, principally through providing consultancy services for its existing clients.

Carbon neutrality is a powerful claim to make. In 2006 the Oxford American Dictionary declared it 'word of the year' for the widespread use the concept was attracting.15 HSBC was one of the first major players to declare itself 'carbon neutral' in 2004 following in the path of Swiss Re (2003). Francis Sullivan at HSBC was the key figure behind this but is in fact rather cautious about the role that voluntary offsets can play in the pursuit of carbon neutrality. He has said 'I'm sure there are people buying offsets in this unregulated market that are not credible. I am sure there are people buying nothing more than hot air'.16 Amid scepticism about firms using offsets to buy their way out of trouble, as Nick Robins of the bank makes clear, offsets are a last resort to mop up those emissions that can't be reduced by other means.17 Indeed many people refer to a 'hierarchy' of actions whereby the priority should be to avoid and reduce emissions, then to replace

13 L. Slade, 'A bank's perspective on the voluntary carbon market: from risk to opportunity - the HSBC carbon neutral experience', in R. Bayon, A. Hawn and K. Hamilton. (eds.) Voluntary Carbon Markets, (London: Earthscan, 2007), p. 96.

14 L. Slade, 'A bank's perspective on the voluntary carbon market...,' p. 95.

15 Clean Air-Cool Planet and Forum for the Future, 'Getting to zero: defining corporate carbon neutrality', 2008, available at:, accessed 3 January 2010.

16 As quoted in D. Adam, 'You feel better, but is your carbon offset just hot air?', The Guardian, 7 October 2006. See oct/07/frontpagenews.climatechange, accessed 30 September 2009.

17 Interview with Nick Robins, HSBC, 19 June 2008.

processes and technologies generating high levels of GHGs, and only then to use offsets.18

Given the difficulty of tracking and quantifying all aspects of a business' operations, many firms have been wary of making claims of carbon neutrality and advertising standards authorities have criticised firms making claims that are impossible to prove. The UK's Advertising Standards Authority, for example, ruled against a claim by British Gas that one of its fuel packages was 'zero carbon'.

The big issue for firms attempting to calculate their footprint is where to establish the boundaries. Do you take into account your suppliers' emissions, the travel of your employees, emissions associated with packaging, transportation and end use? Firms' responses have varied considerably.19 While Ben and Jerry's ice-cream franchise claim to be carbon neutral 'from cow to cone', Manchester airport's claim excludes emissions from flights into and out of the airport! Some have made it sound suspiciously easy: 'you can neutralise the greenhouse gas emissions from your home, office, car and air travel in 5 minutes and for the cost of a cappuccino a week'.20 As with the offsets market in general, as we will see below, the Climate Neutral Network tries to bring together businesses and NGOs to create guidelines for climate neutral products and enterprises.

For large corporate clients, interest in projects is driven by the nature of their sector and the regions where they are looking to invest. They want projects where they have a client base or projects with a strong element of PR potential attached to them. Priorities will not necessarily include those projects that make most difference socially and environmentally. Inevitably when other actors enter the market with different priorities such as traders, lawyers and financial services providers, things change. A Climate Care employee reflected on his frustration at attending a voluntary carbon markets conference; 'this is not about climate change ... It's about trading these instruments. It's not about how we can do the most good, it's not

18 Clean Air-Cool Planet and Forum for the Future, 'Getting to zero.'.

19 Clean Air-Cool Planet and Forum for the Future, 'Getting to zero.'; See also, 'CArbonFreeTM Product Certification: Carbon Footprint Protocol,' version 1.0, 6 July 2007, available at: site/uploads/Product_Certification_Protocol_-_2007-07.pdf, accessed 3 January 2010.

20 Carbon Clear website, cited in K. Smith, The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins (Amsterdam: Carbon Trade Watch, 2007), p.10.

about how we tackle climate change, and that's the absolute danger here'.21

In response to that danger, the groups New Economics Foundation and the International Institute for Environment and Development have set up what they call an 'AdMit' scheme, which seeks to fund adaptation to climate change impacts in countries in the South through the purchase of credits. Seen as an alternative to offsetting, 'The AdMit initiative provides a mechanism for emitters of greenhouse gases in developed countries to take care of the impacts of their emissions by investing in projects that enable poor people in developing countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change'.22 It is a new product (rather than a new standard) running on a pilot basis until the end of 2009, and has been supported by a broad range of development NGOs such as CARE and Action Aid, UN agencies such as UNICEF as well as environmental groups such as Greenpeace.

standards in the voluntary carbon market

In the CDM, a central aspect of the creation of the market is the process by which a project is declared to have reduced overall emissions, and credits are issued. A key difference in the voluntary market is that no such centralised means of issuing credits exists. Indeed, firms can (although the number doing so is declining) simply issue credits themselves without any third party verifying their claims. While the CDM market 'product' is the CER, the equivalent in the voluntary market is the VER. Both are equal to one tonne of CO2 equivalent. But how is it established that a project produces a particular amount of VERs? In the place of a central regulator, a number of different standards have been elaborated by various organisations to provide a sense of governance of these projects. The large buyers of credits, as we have seen, are motivated in part by the PR benefits of claiming carbon neutrality, or some other way of presenting their commitment to dealing with climate change. And when PR is at stake, those companies have an interest in preventing that turning into bad PR. This is why the demand for certification schemes has developed. It may also produce a race to

21 H. Lovell, 'Conceptualizing climate governance ...' . beyond the international regime.

22 See, accessed 21 July 2009.

the top in standards: the World Bank claims that there is a 'flight to quality' in these standards, both with more ambitious standards being elaborated, and more and more projects being subjected to the most stringent tests.23 Certainly, from 2006-2007, the proportion of projects which had no standard declined, and the proportion of standards with no third-party verification or with proprietary (and therefore not verifiable by outsiders) standards, like the CCX or other standards which are owned by the offset provider, declined. Meanwhile the number using standards widely regarded as more reliable, like the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS), VER+ or Gold Standards, increased significantly.24 As much as 50% of the transactions conducted in 2007 involved credits verified to a specific third-party standard. Reflecting on this trend, the State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets report for 2008 notes:

Over the past 2 years numerous writers and analysts have likened the voluntary carbon markets to the 'wild west'. In 2007 market trends highlight that this frontier has become a settlement zone. Customers are increasingly savvy about the opportunities and pitfalls in the carbon offset domain and stakeholders are aggressively working to forge the rule of the game and structures to enable smooth transactions.25

Table 7.1 illustrates a number of these standards. Most claim to have at least as stringent criteria for measuring additionality - the emissions the project will save as compared to the situation if it did not go ahead - as the CDM. The Gold Standard, developed by WWF, essentially applies an extra set of screens to CDM or voluntary projects, and gives credits only to projects in the areas of renewable and energy efficiency and the conversion of methane to energy. It thus avoids the various problems associated in particular with forestry as well as many biomass projects, which are usually the focus of the critics of offsetting projects. A number of offset organisations, such as myclimate (itself an NGO rather than a for-profit company), based

23 K. Capoor and P. Ambrosi, State and Trends of the Carbon Market (Washington DC: World Bank, 2006), p. 41.

24 See K. Hamilton, M. Sjardin, T. Marcello and G. Xu, Forging a Frontier: State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2008 (Washington DC: Ecosystem Marketplace and New Carbon Finance, 2008), p. 53. In this period, the VCS (the most popular standard) went from 21% to 29% of the share of those projects using standards, the VER+ went from a standing start to 9%, and the Gold Standard went from 4% to 9%. By contrast, the CCX halved its share from 14% to 7%, while those using the retailer's own standard crashed from 23% in 2006 to 2% in 2007.

25 K. Hamilton et al., Forging a Frontier: State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets

Table 7.1. Standards in the voluntary carbon market

Was this article helpful?

0 0
The Productive Entrepreneur

The Productive Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs and business owners. Discover 45 Insightful Tips To Motivate, Encourage And Energize You To Become A Successful Entrepreneur. These Tips Will Move You Forward Towards Your Goals As An Entrepreneur. Use It As A Handbook Whenever You Need To Get Motivated.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment