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Untangling the Complexities of Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets

In our ongoing battle against climate change, the scientific consensus is unequivocal. According to the World Economic Forum, we need to curtail our greenhouse gas emissions by a formidable 43% by the end of this decade. This is an imperative measure to cap global warming at 1.5°C above the levels that prevailed during the pre-industrial era.

Businesses have two key roles to play in this context:

  1. They need to decisively act on their direct emissions, decarbonising Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions in line with the 1.5°C warming limit.

  2. Companies must also invest in high-quality carbon credits, supporting projects that sequester carbon from our atmosphere, to offset any unavoidable emissions and achieve net-zero targets.

The Voluntary Carbon Market (VCM) has become a significant player in this scenario. In 2022 alone, it has directed over $1.2 billion towards mitigating roughly 161 Mt of carbon emissions. However, as the VCM sits on the precipice of dramatic change, it faces critical scrutiny.


Are the outcomes delivering on their promises? Should businesses incorporate VCMs into their decarbonisation strategies? How can we ensure that these investments are nature-positive and make a real impact? And most crucially, what's the most effective approach to scale these investments?

A leading Chemical company's business vice-president suggests that VCMs will play an integral role in neutralising the last stubborn 10% of emissions that are otherwise irreducible.

Bain & Company's comprehensive analysis of the top 2,000 global companies indicates that the demand for carbon credits could surge to 2.6 Gt by 2030, a staggering 13-fold increase compared to 2021. But to scale the market from a modest 0.2 Gt of CO2e in 2021 and ensure it delivers its potential environmental and societal benefits, we need to act decisively.

Three prominent challenges currently beleaguer the VCM:

  1. Project Quality and Credibility: Carbon credits must represent authentic mitigation actions. These actions must be additional, meaning they would not occur without the carbon credit income, and they must be permanent and devoid of adverse effects within or outside their boundaries.

  2. Making the Business Case and Garnering Commitment: On the demand side, short-term inertia, market defects, and the threat of tarnishing their reputation hinder companies from scaling their climate action funding through carbon markets.

  3. The Imperative for Transparent and Trustworthy Reforms: Beyond the necessary improvements in supply and demand, the market's transparency needs immediate enhancement. Recent findings indicate that significant portions of end-user costs are not reaching the communities and projects in desperate need of financial support. There lies a significant opportunity for market reforms to increase transparency and direct capital to where it's most needed.

In light of the pressing need for climate action, Voluntary Carbon Markets (VCMs) serve as a pivotal tool.

However, optimising their effectiveness requires diligent attention to the myriad challenges they currently face.

Enhancing the quality and credibility of carbon offset projects is paramount. A robust certification mechanism that ensures the authenticity, additionality, and permanence of these projects will reinforce trust and stimulate investment. By fine-tuning the supply side, we can secure the foundation on which VCMs operate.

On the demand side, the corporate world needs to understand the value of these investments in terms of both environmental impact and corporate responsibility.

The market already demonstrated its potential in 2022 by directing over $1.2 billion towards offsetting 161 Mt of carbon emissions. These numbers are expected to grow exponentially. According to Bain & Company, by 2030, the demand for carbon credits could reach up to 2.6 Gt, a scale 13 times larger than that of 2021.

Market transparency is the linchpin that holds the supply and demand sides together. Recent reports have raised concerns about whether the funds are reaching the projects and communities that need them the most. Therefore, regulatory measures that ensure transparency and accountability are crucial to keep the funds flowing in the right direction.

By addressing these challenges, we can leverage the full potential of VCMs, turning them into a powerful weapon in our fight against climate change. Moreover, we can achieve our objective of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2030, as recommended by the World Economic Forum. This is not just an environmental goal but also a societal imperative that requires collective action from every sector of society, including businesses, governments, and individuals.

The road ahead is steep, but the reward — a sustainable and resilient planet — is worth the climb. Let's move forward with resolve, knowing that every step we take today will shape the world of tomorrow.
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