December 6 – Voluntary action – the new normal?

At a COP20 side-event roundtable convened by the International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance (ICROA), IETA and the UNFCCC, we reviewed the role and future potential for voluntary action to make a material contribution to climate mitigation, adaptation and sustainable development.

Shoplety, Honoso, Figueres

 Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, made the point that the concept of carbon neutrality that has been the cornerstone of voluntary carbon offsetting practice, is in fact what policy and regulation will have to deliver for the global economy by the end of the century in order to stabilise the climate. She stressed that the vast majority of businesses, individuals or nations wishing to make absolute reductions to their emissions now would have to rely on quality offsetting.

Christiana made two other important observations: that progress on negotiations was glacial; and that, although the Clean Development Mechanism’s certified emission reductions (CERs) were designed for a global compliance carbon market, there was now every reason to consider their use by governments, corporates and individuals taking voluntary action ahead of or beyond regulation.

The dialogue drew on ICROA’s review of how different governments are creating enabling conditions that can steer, facilitate and reward voluntary action as a valued complement to regulation and so scale and accelerate action. Government representatives provided examples of government-backed initiatives to encourage voluntary offsetting amongst the public (Sweden), and of large-scale sporting events (Brazil). Japan shared its experience in developing a comprehensive national voluntary offset scheme which oversees quality, delivery, certification and promotion of a scheme that has earned the support of a number of leading Japanese corporations.

The roundtable also drew on recent research about the value derived from voluntary action using carbon offsetting, showing that, when done well, voluntary offsetting delivers a range of climate mitigation, adaptation and indeed sustainable development benefits, over and above the ability to compensate for unavoidable emissions. As the discussion turned the question of scaling the impact of voluntary action by building demand, the previously clear differentiation between compliance and voluntary narrowed as a number of issues were surfaced:

  • While voluntary carbon standards deliver additional value through co-benefits, they don’t always have the host country approvals that are implicit to the CDM. Could this become a barrier to growth for the more favored voluntary carbon standards?
  • Offset projects tend to be restricted to countries without binding targets under the Kyoto Protocol in order to substantiate additionality. What will happen when all nations have binding targets?
  • With ICROA calling for more support from governments to recognise and incentivise voluntary action, are we not moving from pure voluntary into a stage of pre-compliance? Is this a good or a bad thing?

As is mostly the case at COPs, there were more questions than answers. However, more than enough ground was covered to acknowledge the real interest in scaling the innovation, reach, and impact of voluntary carbon offsetting to build momentum in developing vital market-based mechanisms for a global climate agreement.

Voluntary is not the new normal, but it’s going to play a hugely important role in delivering progress between now and 2020, when a new climate agreement hopefully comes into force. 

Jonathan Shopley, CarbonNeutral Company

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