The role of voluntary carbon market in a climate change era

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The voluntary carbon market is gaining momentum and plays an increasingly important role in limiting global warming. Here’s how.

As business leaders set increasingly ambitious commitments to reduce global greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, a market is developing that can help to achieve them by supplementing companies’ efforts to reduce their own emissions. This is the rapidly growing market for voluntary carbon credits.

Carbon credits (often referred to as “offsets”) have an important dual role to play in the battle against climate change. They enable companies to support decarbonization beyond their own carbon footprint, thus accelerating the broader transition to a lower-carbon future. They also help finance projects for removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—delivering negative emissions, which will be needed to neutralize residual emissions that will persist even under the most optimistic scenarios for decarbonization. However, while the voluntary carbon credit market is currently experiencing significant momentum, it is still relatively small. The recently launched report by the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets aims to create a blueprint for solutions that could help overcome obstacles to its further growth. (For more about the Taskforce, which McKinsey supports as a knowledge partner, please read our article “Scaling voluntary carbon markets to help meet climate goals.”) This article will explain how carbon credits work and how they can help in the global effort to address climate change.

The dual role of voluntary carbon credits in addressing climate change

A carbon credit is a certificate representing one metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent that is either prevented from being emitted into the atmosphere (emissions avoidance/reduction) or removed from the atmosphere as the result of a carbon-reduction project. For a carbon-reduction project to generate carbon credits, it needs to demonstrate that the achieved emission reductions or carbon dioxide removals are real, measurable, permanent, additional, independently verified, and unique (see sidebar, “Criteria for carbon credits”). If a project meets these criteria—as specified by independent standards such as Gold Standard and Verified Carbon Standard (VCS)—credits can be issued. The impact of a carbon credit can only be claimed—that is, counted toward a climate commitment—once the credit has been retired (canceled in a registry), after which it can no longer be sold. A carbon credit is considered a “voluntary carbon credit” when it is bought and retired on a voluntary basis rather than as part of a process of compliance with legal obligations.

The proceeds from the sale of voluntary carbon credits enable the development of carbon-reduction projects across a wide array of project types. These include renewable energy; avoiding emissions from fossil-fuel based alternatives; natural climate solutions, such as reforestation, avoided deforestation, or agroforestry; energy efficiency; and resource recovery, such as avoiding methane emissions from landfills or wastewater facilities; among others.

While most of these project types including renewable energy, avoided deforestation, and resource recovery focus on avoiding carbon emissions, others, such as reforestation, focus on removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is a meaningful difference, illustrating the dual role voluntary carbon credits can play in addressing climate change:

  • In the short term, voluntary carbon credits from projects focused on emissions avoidance/reduction can help accelerate the transition to a decarbonized global economy, for example by driving investment into renewable energy, energy efficiency, and natural capital. Avoiding emissions is typically the most cost-efficient way to address atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.
  • In the medium to long term, voluntary carbon credits could play an important role in scaling up carbon dioxide removals (or negative emissions) needed to neutralize residual emissions1 that cannot be further reduced. In a recent analysis, we found that at least 5 gigatons of negative emissions will be needed annually to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. These could be realized through a combination of natural climate solutions such as reforestation (for example, sequestering carbon in trees) and nascent technology-based carbon capture, use, and storage solutions such as direct air capture with carbon storage (DACCS), and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Voluntary carbon credits can help finance the scale-up of these solutions.