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Silverstein: Carbon credit market gets a reset


Those who oversee the voluntary carbon markets say they have gotten the message loud and clear — to rid the landscape of greenwashing and help people understand what makes a good carbon offset versus a sketchy one.

Journalists created a firestorm 18 months ago when they found that 90% of the voluntary carbon credits are “worthless.” Brokers sell them to companies that use them to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. In return, they are “saving” tropical rainforests that absorb carbon dioxide.

However, SourceMaterial found that only a fraction of the 100 million carbon credits it reviewed resulted in “real reductions.”

That’s changing, says The Integrity Council Governing Board. It acknowledged that while some good credits result in emissions reductions and sustainable development, some bad ones have tainted the market. Its role is to provide buyers with credible, trusted and rigorous information. The aim is to scale up, save rainforests and curb global warming.

The news stories “chilled the market,” said Nat Keohane, an economist and senior adviser to the Integrity Council. The research “highlighted the need to understand high-quality carbon credit markets. We are turning that around and giving people confidence that they represent real emissions reductions. Once they have that assurance, the market will grow.”

The Integrity Council’s pursuits started in 2021 and will bear fruit by the fall of this year. Analysts valued the voluntary carbon credit at $2 billion in 2022. The negative publicity has frozen it. Corporate investors can stick their toes in the water now; by fall, they can go waist-deep.

It’s a two-step process. The first part examines governing the voluntary carbon markets. The second part evaluates hundreds of methodologies — how sellers issue carbon credits. Keohane thinks the voluntary carbon credit market could be worth $20 billion to $50 billion by 2030 if all goes well.

For context, the global compliance market for carbon credits — think the European Union, California and New England trading credits — is worth $800 billion. If global climate talks are to succeed, developing countries must get the financing to deploy more renewables, buy the best technologies, and keep their rainforests standing.

Nature-based solutions cut emissions by 9 gigatons annually. To ratchet it down the rest of the way, COP28 promised to triple the use of renewables, double energy efficiency measures, and stop deforestation — all by 2030.

The benefits extend to 350 million people who rely on rainforests for their livelihoods, not to mention the terrestrial species that live in tropical forests. Carbon credits can make a massive difference in the short run — well before corporate investments in energy efficiencies and cleaner fuels kick in.

Alphabet, Disney, General Motors and Unilever are among the buyers of offsets. Their mission is to do due diligence to guarantee that the credits have an effect. Analysts have criticized the voluntary market because the brokers soak up much of the wealth — not the local communities. Furthermore, the deals may save trees in one place but neglect pristine areas elsewhere.

The Integrity Council said its team will measure and monitor emissions reductions. If it approves the carbon credits, investors can have a “high degree of integrity — the sign of excellence and the gold star.”

“We can’t get ahead of the decisions,” Keohane said. “Not every credit will get approved. We have seen programs withdraw methodologies from consideration. The goal is to distinguish between high-quality and low-quality credits. No one can guarantee it will be perfect. But we help the market and build confidence.”

Governance is a team effort involving industry, regulators and watchdogs. Three-card Monte won’t fly — a trick that would doom not just the voluntary carbon credit market but potentially large swaths of tropical rainforests.

Ken Silverstein has covered energy and the environment for 25 years. He wrote this for InsideSources.com. Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at AzOpinions@iniusa.org.