There are also many companies that sell carbon credits to commercial and individual customers who are interested in lowering their carbon footprint on a voluntary basis. These carbon offsetters purchase the credits from an investment fund or a carbon development company that has aggregated the credits from individual projects. The quality of the credits is based in part on the validation process and sophistication of the fund or development company that acted as the sponsor to the carbon project. This is reflected in their price; voluntary units typically have less value than the units sold through the rigorously-validated Clean Development Mechanism.
The concept of carbon credits came into existence as a result of increasing awareness of the need for controlling emissions. The IPCC has observed that:
Policies that provide a real or implicit price of carbon could create incentives for producers and consumers to significantly invest in low-GHG products, technologies and processes. Such policies could include economic instruments, government funding and regulation,while noting that a tradable permit system is one of the policy instruments that has been shown to be environmentally effective in the industrial sector, as long as there are reasonable levels of predictability over the initial allocation mechanism and long-term price.
The mechanism was formalized in the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement between more than 170 countries, and the market mechanisms were agreed through the subsequent Marrakesh Accords. The mechanism adopted was similar to the successful US Acid Rain Program to reduce some industrial pollutants.
By permitting allowances to be bought and sold, an operator can seek out the most cost-effective way of reducing its emissions, either by investing in 'cleaner' machinery and practices or by purchasing emissions from another operator who already has excess 'capacity'.
Since 2005, the Kyoto mechanism has been adopted for CO2 trading by all the countries within the European Union under its European Trading Scheme (EU ETS) with the European Commission as its validating authority. From 2008, EU participants must link with the other developed countries who ratified Annex I of the protocol, and trade the six most significant anthropogenic greenhouse gases. In the United States, which has not ratified Kyoto, and Australia, whose ratification came into force in March 2008, similar schemes are being considered.
The Kyoto Protocol provides for three mechanisms that enable countries or operators in developed countries to acquire greenhouse gas reduction credits
These carbon projects can be created by a national government or by an operator within the country. In reality, most of the transactions are not performed by national governments directly, but by operators who have been set quotas by their country.
Climate exchanges have been established to provide a spot market in allowances, as well as futures and options market to help discover a market price and maintain liquidity. Carbon prices are normally quoted in Euros per tonne of carbon dioxide or its equivalent (CO2e). Other greenhouse gasses can also be traded, but are quoted as standard multiples of carbon dioxide with respect to their global warming potential. These features reduce the quota's financial impact on business, while ensuring that the quotas are met at a national and international level.
Currently there are at least six exchanges trading in carbon allowances: the Chicago Climate Exchange, European Climate Exchange, Nord Pool, PowerNext, Multi Commodity Exchange and National Commodity and Derivatives Exchange. Recently, NordPool listed a contract to trade offsets generated by a CDM carbon project called Certified Emission Reductions (CERs). Many companies now engage in emissions abatement, offsetting, and sequestration programs to generate credits that can be sold on one of the exchanges. At least two private electronic markets have been established in 2008: CantorCO2e and Preserval Marketplace.
Managing emissions is one of the fastest-growing segments in financial services in the City of London with a market now worth about €30 billion, but which could grow to €1 trillion within a decade. Louis Redshaw, head of environmental markets at Barclays Capital predicts that "Carbon will be the world's biggest commodity market, and it could become the world's biggest market overall."
An individual allowance, such as a Kyoto Assigned Amount Unit (AAU) or its near-equivalent European Union Allowance (EUA), may have a different market value to an offset such as a CER. This is due to the lack of a developed secondary market for CERs, a lack of homegeneity between projects which causes difficulty in pricing, as well as questions due to the principle of supplementarity and its lifetime. Additionally, offsets generated by a carbon project under the Clean Development Mechanism are potentially limited in value because operators in the EU ETS are restricted as to what percentage of their allowance can be met through these flexible mechanisms.
Yale University economics professor William Nordhaus argues that the price of carbon needs to be high enough to motivate the changes in behavior and changes in economic production systems necessary to effectively limit emissions of greenhouse gases.
Raising the price of carbon will achieve four goals. First, it will provide signals to consumers about what goods and services are high-carbon ones and should therefore be used more sparingly. Second, it will provide signals to producers about which inputs use more carbon (such as coal and oil) and which use less or none (such as natural gas or nuclear power), thereby inducing firms to substitute low-carbon inputs. Third, it will give market incentives for inventors and innovators to develop and introduce low-carbon products and processes that can replace the current generation of technologies. Fourth, and most important, a high carbon price will economize on the information that is required to do all three of these tasks. Through the market mechanism, a high carbon price will raise the price of products according to their carbon content. Ethical consumers today, hoping to minimize their “carbon footprint,” have little chance of making an accurate calculation of the relative carbon use in, say, driving 250 miles as compared with flying 250 miles. A harmonized carbon tax would raise the price of a good proportionately to exactly the amount of CO2 that is emitted in all the stages of production that are involved in producing that good. If 0.01 of a ton of carbon emissions results from the wheat growing and the milling and the trucking and the baking of a loaf of bread, then a tax of $30 per ton carbon will raise the price of bread by $0.30. The “carbon footprint” is automatically calculated by the price system. Consumers would still not know how much of the price is due to carbon emissions, but they could make their decisions confident that they are paying for the social cost of their carbon footprint.Nordhaus has suggested, based on the social cost of carbon emissions, that an optimal price of carbon is around $30(US) per ton and will need to increase with inflation.
The social cost of carbon is the additional damage caused by an additional ton of carbon emissions. ... The optimal carbon price, or optimal carbon tax, is the market price (or carbon tax) on carbon emissions that balances the incremental costs of reducing carbon emissions with the incremental benefits of reducing climate damages. ... [I]f a country wished to impose a carbon tax of $30 per ton of carbon, this would involve a tax on gasoline of about 9 cents per gallon. Similarly, the tax on coal-generated electricity would be about 1 cent per kWh, or 10 percent of the current retail price. At current levels of carbon emissions in the United States, a tax of $30 per ton of carbon would generate $50 billion of revenue per year.William Nordhaus, 2008. A Question of Balance - Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies, Yale University Press.
Carbon credits create a market for reducing greenhouse emissions by giving a monetary value to the cost of polluting the air. Emissions become an internal cost of doing business and are visible on the balance sheet alongside raw materials and other liabilities or assets.
By way of example, consider a business that owns a factory putting out 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in a year. Its government is an Annex I country that enacts a law to limit the emissions that the business can produce. So the factory is given a quota of say 80,000 tonnes per year. The factory either reduces its emissions to 80,000 tonnes or is required to purchase carbon credits to offset the excess. After costing up alternatives the business may decide that it is uneconomical or infeasible to invest in new machinery for that year. Instead it may choose to buy carbon credits on the open market from organizations that have been approved as being able to sell legitimate carbon credits.
By treating emissions as a market commodity it becomes easier for business to understand and manage their activities, while economists and traders can attempt to predict future pricing using well understood market theories. Thus the main advantages of a tradable carbon credit over a carbon tax are:
The first step in determining whether or not a carbon project has legitimately led to the reduction of real, measurable, permanent emissions is understanding the CDM methodology process. This is the process by which project sponsors submit, through a Designated Operational Entity (DOE), their concepts for emissions reduction creation. The CDM Executive Board, with the CDM Methodology Panel and their expert advisors, review each project and decide how and if they do indeed result in reductions that are additional
It is generally agreed that voluntary carbon offset projects must also prove additionality in order to ensure the legitimacy of the environmental stewardship claims resulting from the retirement of the carbon credit (offset). According the World Resources Institute/World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WRI/WBCSD) : "GHG emission trading programs operate by capping the emissions of a fixed number of individual facilities or sources. Under these programs, tradable 'offset credits' are issued for project-based GHG reductions that occur at sources not covered by the program. Each offset credit allows facilities whose emissions are capped to emit more, in direct proportion to the GHG reductions represented by the credit. The idea is to achieve a zero net increase in GHG emissions, because each tonne of increased emissions is 'offset' by project-based GHG reductions. The difficulty is that many projects that reduce GHG emissions (relative to historical levels) would happen regardless of the existence of a GHG program and without any concern for climate change mitigation. If a project 'would have happened anyway,' then issuing offset credits for its GHG reductions will actually allow a positive net increase in GHG emissions, undermining the emissions target of the GHG program. Additionality is thus critical to the success and integrity of GHG programs that recognize project-based GHG reductions."
The Kyoto mechanism is the only internationally-agreed mechanism for regulating carbon credit activities, and, crucially, includes checks for additionality and overall effectiveness. Its supporting organisation, the UNFCCC, is the only organisation with a global mandate on the overall effectiveness of emission control systems, although enforcement of decisions relies on national co-operation. The Kyoto trading period only applies for five years between 2008 and 2012. The first phase of the EU ETS system started before then, and is expected to continue in a third phase afterwards, and may co-ordinate with whatever is internationally-agreed at but there is general uncertainty as to what will be agreed in Post-Kyoto Protocol negotiations on greenhouse gas emissions. As business investment often operates over decades, this adds risk and uncertainty to their plans. As several countries responsible for a large proportion of global emissions (notably USA, Australia, China) have avoided mandatory caps, this also means that businesses in capped countries may perceive themselves to be working at a competitive disadvantage against those in uncapped countries as they are now paying for their carbon costs directly.
A key concept behind the cap and trade system is that national quotas should be chosen to represent genuine and meaningful reductions in national output of emissions. Not only does this ensure that overall emissions are reduced but also that the costs of emissions trading are carried fairly across all parties to the trading system. However, governments of capped countries may seek to unilaterally weaken their commitments, as evidenced by the 2006 and 2007 National Allocation Plans for several countries in the EU ETS, which were submitted late and then were initially rejected by the European Commission for being too lax .
A question has been raised over the grandfathering of allowances. Countries within the EU ETS have granted their incumbent businesses most or all of their allowances for free. This can sometimes be perceived as a protectionist obstacle to new entrants into their markets. There have also been accusations of power generators getting a 'windfall' profit by passing on these emissions 'charges' to their customers. As the EU ETS moves into its second phase and joins up with Kyoto, it seems likely that these problems will be reduced as more allowances will be auctioned.
Establishing a meaningful offset project is complex: voluntary offsetting activities outside the CDM mechanism are effectively unregulated and there have been criticisms of offsetting in these unregulated activities. This particularly applies to some voluntary corporate schemes in uncapped countries and for some personal carbon offsetting schemes.
There have also been concerns raised over the validation of CDM credits. One concern has related to the accurate assessment of additionality. Others relate to the effort and time taken to get a project approved. Questions may also be raised about the validation of the effectiveness of some projects; it appears that many projects do not achieve the expected benefit after they have been audited, and the CDM board can only approve a lower amount of CER credits. For example, it may take longer to roll out a project than originally planned, or an afforestation project may be reduced by disease or fire. For these reasons some countries place additional restrictions on their local implementations and will not allow credits for some types of carbon sink activity, such as forestry or land use projects.