Reclaiming Carbon Offsets

by Molly Aeck

While channel surfing a few months ago, I came across a Law & Order episode, in which the murder victim had been running a carbon credit scam… seriously. It’s no wonder that when people ask me what I do, I never tell them that I work for a “carbon credit” company or an “offset provider”. I awkwardly explain around these words like a game of $100,000 Pyramid, but am much less likely to trigger someone’s word-recall of a media story that dismissed offsets as a conspiracy. When I buy myself time to talk about my experience hunting down emission reductions, prior to introducing the buzzwords, the listener is usually more receptive to the logic behind using a market to uncover least-cost abatement opportunities.

It seems to me that in the three+ years I’ve worked for EcoSecurities public impressions of carbon offsetting have wavered dramatically. In 2005, the Clean Development Mechanism was the newest shiny tool for channeling investment from industrial countries to assist developing countries in leapfrogging dirty development. In 2007, a different company was going “carbon neutral” every day. But shortly thereafter came websites like CheatNeutral and reports dismissing the CDM as failed before we even had a chance to learn by doing. Now, US policy makers are designing cap and trade legislation as though the last decade of emissions trading never happened.

I would no sooner get into an argument about the superiority of a carbon market to a carbon tax than I would a debate about scientific evidence of global warming. Someone else can make the arguments with data and graphs. However, when I’m not busy avoiding the subject entirely, I am at times compelled to defend the CDM and the value of offsets from a purely experiential stand point.

My adventures in carbon trading began when I received a Fulbright scholarship to spend a year in the Philippines researching project financing for renewable energy. At that time, a 33 MW wind plant in Ilocos Norte was the first and only project to have obtained CERs in the country, but I visited with dozens of companies pursuing CER revenue to finance technologies ranging from bagasse co-gen at sugar mills to large-scale geothermal. It was on one such site visit that I was introduced to EcoSecurities, which owned anaerobic digester projects at 16 different piggeries.

I joined EcoSecurities as their local project manager in the Philippines and sought out to secure “host-nation approval” for these projects. Getting things in order was no easy task. I won’t get into details, but it involved calibrating biogas meters, hosting stakeholder meetings in rural barangay halls, training local “pollution control officers”, and navigating the nebulous world of environmental permitting in a developing country. I didn’t need a verification report to tell me that the emissions reductions from these projects were real – I took part every day in creating their additionality. I also experienced the desired co-benefits firsthand; the water was dramatically cleaner, the air smelled better, clean local electricity replaced dirty diesel trucked in by dirty diesel.

Today there are over 4,000 projects in the CDM pipeline and the World Bank estimates that by the end of 2008 the CDM had leveraged over $140 billion in clean energy investment to the developing world. In light of this, why at times is the concept of “offsetting” still dismissed as a distraction from real infrastructure change or an undeserved license for someone else pollute? Certainly there will always be examples of bad projects that slipped through the cracks, but what’s important is that the CDM motivated us to do something. It motivated us to put on our rain boots and tramp through pig sh*t. So to all of you out there who’s time and effort became part of a project’s additionality- when you use buzzwords like “carbon credits” and “offsets” to describe what you do, back them up with darn good explanation of what that means on the ground, so that someday soon these words can be attributed the tangible connotation they deserve. Until then, I hope there’s not another Law & Order episode where the crime drama involves carbon trading – I don’t think I could take it.

Molly Aeck is a Senior Client Manager for EcoSecurities based in San Francisco. She encourages you to check out EcoSecurities’ ProjectNet which brings the Philippine piggery and other offset projects to life through photographs, diary blogs, video footage, testimonials, location maps and project design documents (PDDs).


By Guest Columnist Sonia Medina, US Country Manager, Ecosecurities

At 24, a recent graduate from Oxford, I thought the idea of joining a tiny consultancy firm doing carbon reduction projects was something very cool. At the time, I did not mind that I had to cycle 5 miles across town to work at a country house in the outskirts of Oxford. That did not have heating during the winter. Not the kind of job expectation one may have when you have graduated from a so-called good university. But five years later, I have travelled a million miles, visited more than 50 countries across five continents, negotiated contracts to build a portfolio of hundreds of carbon-abatement projects and spent an enormous amount of time learning about other cultures. What a ride!

After that fantastic experience, I thought that the next frontier for climate change is the sleeping giant of the United States and I found myself buying a one-way ticket to JFK to ‘try to figure out how to make it here’ as the new US Country Director for that same firm I joined five years ago (and which now has nearly 300 employees, plus heating). In my first three months, it already feels like going back to that small cold country house in Oxford when it comes to the debates about the science of climate change or the rationale of a carbon market that I hear in NY, DC and Sacramento, but with a twist – I have to facebook people the information about my company – something people in the developing world prefer to do over a beer, rice wine or green tea!
Four years ago, our work really picked up when the Kyoto Protocol was finally ratified by Russia, after years of back and forth. It was almost an anti-climax when they finally decided to go ahead after so much playing around. I guess Putin has always like intrigue games from his days at KGB. It was at that point when the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – a project-based mechanism to generate offsets regulated by the United Nations and part of the Kyoto Protocol – found itself flooded with real demand.

Most of my work these five years has been in building a portfolio of CDM projects worldwide ranging from landfills in Latin America and biomass-to-energy projects in India to industrial energy efficiency in South Africa and China, to name a few. During that time, my relationship with CDM has been of love and hate. There have been days that I thought it was the most fantastic mechanism of the world, that allows people to align themselves to do good, channels foreign investment to clean projects in the developing world and truly promotes sustainable development. Other days I’m convinced that the bureaucracy that the UN has built around the system will make it collapse under its own weight, and I put my hands up in desperation and I think. ”we will never go anywhere!”

But to be fair, even though the process to get an offset certified through the UN system can be onerous, it is also true that the mechanism does preserve environmental integrity, has helped built enormous awareness around the issue of climate change across continents, has created a pipeline of over 4,000 projects across five continents and has issued over 250 million of high-quality offsets in the last three years. Accomplishments other carbon standards cannot even dream of.

That is why knowing the good and the bad on the CDM, it is quite shocking that policy-makers and industry groups in the US totally ignore the work done and lessons learned from this incredible period of growth. It’s especially ironic when funnily enough, the CDM was actually created by the Clinton Administration back in 1997 when negotiating Kyoto. It is important that knowledge builds rapidly because there is no time to reinvent the wheel. When the Obama administration enacts a cap and trade bill, industry groups know very well that environmentally sound offsets are a key price control mechanism. The US could do a double-service to the world and to itself by fixing the procedural issues of the CDM, and adopting an already-created high-quality pipeline of projects seeking to make real emission reductions.

Next Week: The rights and wrongs of CDM criticisms and why knowing the difference should matter to the US

Throwing down the gauntlet to Secretary Clinton

By Marc Stuart

Secretary Clinton’s weeklong trip to Asia was notable for a number of firsts. The first time a new Secretary of State of a new administration has opened her tenure by flying west, rather than east. Well, George Schultz apparently went south, as the exception that proves the rule. It’s also the first time that these kinds of “nice to meet you” meetings have happened in the eyewall of an global economic meltdown, at least since Cordell Hull got on the boat for FDR. And it’s clearly the first time that climate change was generally at or near the top of any agenda for any Secretary of State at any time.

Secretary Clinton stopped in four countries – Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China – who for various reasons are each a keystone to a future climate accord. Including the US, the four industrial countries are all among the world’s top ten emitters and roughly account for just about half of the world’s direct emissions from fossil fuels, while Indonesia is generally regarded as the largest emitter from land-use change – i.e. deforestation. So, to paraphrase the bank robber Willie Sutton on why he robbed banks, if we’ve looking for emission reductions, you could do a whole lot worse than starting with these five countries.

And, to briefly get into the odd position of praising the Bush administration on climate policy, its recognition of efficiencies in getting the world’s biggest emitters around a far smaller table – and thereby launching the Major Economies Meeting – was really not a bad one. The UN process of embedding 200 countries into a highly complex stream of multifaceted negotiations is, if nothing else, a giant time suck at a moment when alacrity is of the essence. And to be blunt, it really doesn’t matter what Togo, Paraguay and Laos do when it comes to emissions. Emit to your heart’s content – go nuts. By and large, the decisions and agreement of those 17 countries are what matters – some 85% of the world’s emissions – even if the MEM itself was quite deliberately impotent. And Secretary Clinton’s itinerary went straight to the heart of both the MEM and, more importantly, APEC, a international configuration that indeed might have some teeth going forward, as trade, environment and social issues begin to bubble together around the Pacific Rim.

Leaving aside Indonesia ‘s annual half billion tons of forest clearing CO2 emissions for the moment, Japan, South Korea, China and the US represent not just massive emitters, but the foremost inventors, disseminators and consumers of technology. But beyond that, their status differs quite radically. Despite being the symbolic birthplace of the Kyoto Accord, Japan has consistently argued that its namesake agreement treats it unfairly, giving no credit for its impressive embedded efficiency (catalyzed by the 1970’s oil shocks), as well as the direct impact of its technologies around the world. In other words, Japan thinks should get some kind of credit (beyond a pat on the shoulder) for all the Prius’s and other superefficienct gizmos’s that develops and exports around the world. For South Korea, despite being the world’s 9th largest emitter and having per capita GDP roughly comparable to places like Spain, Portugul and Belgium, it has been classified under Kyoto as a developing country without emission caps. They recognize that this is certain to change and today Seoul is gripped with a mini-carbon fever, as they get ready to become a major importer of emission credits after 2012, if indeed the current architecture is continued.

But it is undoubtedly China where the State Department and others should be putting their focus. China and the US have such an integrated economic relationship that it is foolhardy to think that global emission policy derives from anything else but the power politics that characterize their “coopetition” rivalry. China and the US account for some 40% of the world’s emissions and are definitely each others largest potential markets for the GHG friendly technologies that both Beijing and Washington trumpet commitment to. China has also easily been the largest beneficiary of Kyoto’s Clean Development mechanism with some 60% plus of all forthcoming emissions reductions. Yet despite this, at the last global climate meeting in Poznan, China fired off critiques of the CDM’s woeful inefficiencies that would have made industry blush. All in all, this represents a market and policy gap that is waiting to be filled

So, Secretary Clinton, how about something like this the next time you head over for banquets in Forbidden City? We negotiate a permanent free trade agreement between China and the US for all low emission technologies. That’s all of them – wind turbines, fuel cells and solar panels, smart meters, microturbines, cellulosic ethanol and nuclear reactors and everything else that comes out of the skunk works of either Silicon Valley or Shanghai. We seek a bilateral emissions trading regime between our two countries that starts with sectoral benchmarks and caps on key output areas of China, combined with a hard aggregate cap on the US. We develop a constant stream of exchange on green technology development, finance and execution via channels such as the Energy Foundation, Tsinghua University, World Resources Institute. etc We start a serious dialogue about how to embed carbon issues into the WTO negotiations, so that countries can actually have leverage on each other for emissions underperformance, malfeasance and fraud.

And last, but not least, we agree to use our collective bully pulpit to drag the rest of the world towards a real half century policy trajectory that mirrors the aims of the IPCC and President Obama’s campaign commitments. We’ll bring in the Europeans, Canada the Australians and Japan. China can use carrots and sticks with rest of the developing world. Maybe it’s the other way around – who knows. We can split Korea, since they are still on both side of the fence. But a united front from China and the US on this key issue of our time would be difficult to object to

We can only hope that President Obama and Secretary Clinton realize as well that the world’s two largest emitters have gone without any kind of serious comprehensive emissions policy for at least a decade too long. The world is subsequently much closer to an environmental tipping point than anybody should feel comfortable with. The economic dislocation is giving us a profound and unique opportunity to hit a bit of a reset button on a whole lot of levels. The opportunities from developing a technology and trade partnership for greenhouse gases with China are extremely compelling, whereas the risks of keeping to the old modalities are unacceptable.

Marc Stuart is the Co-Founder and Director of New Business Development for EcoSecurities, a global carbon trading firm. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the view of EcoSecurities.

Here we go again . . .or not. Carbon trading vs taxes in economic dislocation

By Marc Stuart

One of my favorite quotes of all time I heard attributed to Barry Diller, the guy who worked for Rupert Murdoch long enough to get the Fox Network up and running, thereby kick starting The Simpson’s and many family moments of mirth in the Stuart household. At some point, Barry purportedly said “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly”. Which Fox undoubtedly proved at its outset. But what Barry meant is that you can spend all your time passing around memos and white papers and studies on what to do and bureaucratize something to death. Or you can just do it and figure things out on the fly.

I think a lot about that when I think about emissions trading and the way these first couple years have fared. We’re now in the 5th year of trading emissions in Europe and there is plenty of evidence that while “badly” may be a bit strong, there are at some serious ambiguities regarding its success. The first three year phase (2005-2007) saw the emissions commodity take a 99% price dive, from over €30 to less than 30 eurocents, in a period of a year or so. Clearly, if it only costs 30 cents to toss a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere – hey, my kids could do it with the spare change they find in the couch while watching The Simpsons.

As the second Phase of the European market begins its second year, it’s starting to have the same familiar smell of Phase 1. Ok, today we’re not that far along – the European carbon allowance is down only some 65% from its peak, and what was €30 is now meandering under €10. What does it mean? Coal to gas switches will go the other way – buy cheap coal and cheap allowances and you’ve got an economic winner that doesn’t put money in Putin’s pocket. Wind development in Europe will finally slow. Carbon capture and storage plans are being shelved. Emission credits from developing countries – the kinds that EcoSecurities specialize in, have followed the same price trajectory. With the prices so low, people are reconsidering the financial viability of investments to lower emissions and in some cases, stopping projects altogether and tearing up contracts. Banks who bought forward emission rights at €15 are deeply underwater in yet another new and inexplicable market. The net result is that certain hydro projects in China are unlikely to get financed, smelter efficiency upgrades in South Africa will go back to the drawing board and landfills in Brazil will keep bleeding uncontrolled methane into the atmosphere.

Bottom line is if you want any kind of emissions mitigation in the developing world, you better hope for some kind of price recovery in the carbon market. And soon.“Cratering the Carbon Market – The Sequel “- will of course give critics of emission trading another opportunity to trot out their arguments that trading doesn’t work and the only way to control emissions properly is via a tax. I might give some credence to that argument – if the price crash in the two periods was created by remotely the same thing. Well, on a macro level, of course it was – imbalance of supply and demand – but here’s where it gets tricky. Phase 1 was caused by too much supply, when EU governments failed to set individual emission caps at the right level, having been convinced by their industries that “just a little more” wouldn’t hurt anybody. Conversely, the Phase 2 retreat has been caused by an unprecedented free fall in demand, when European industry followed Wall Street and the rest of the world into economic strangulation and basically went on vacation, just waiting for somebody, somewhere to order something. In latter 2008, steel production in Germany dropped 30%, thermal electricity in Spain more than 20%, auto production in the UK virtually ground to a halt. Hey, if China’s industrial production dropped double digits in response to the crisis, what the heck do you think Europe – not exactly known as the most cost effective place to do business in the first place – is going to do?

Same thing, some will say – it shows that the market that emissions trading can’t work, that it’s just a shell game foisted upon public policy by a financial sector always looking to create new markets and products. Carbon tax , they say, that’s far more transparent, fairer, effective, can’t be gamed. Just one problem – it simply doesn’t reduce emissions. Unless you get so draconian as to be politically suicidal – not a common condition among our elected leaders. Sweden has had $100 plus carbon taxes for nearly two decades and emissions are down just a tiny fraction in that time. Other carbon taxes in Europe at best have managed to halt emissions rise. And here in the US, you can consider the de facto carbon tax of $200 a ton we managed to layer into the gasoline supply system in 2007 and 2008 while oil climbed to nearly $150 bucks a barrel. Yep, a hundred gallons of gas emit a ton of CO2 – so when you move a gallon of gas a buck, it’s costing you another hundred dollars to emit a ton of CO2. And we barely moved the needle on consumption when all of a sudden we were paying $4-5 a gallon. If ExxonMobil is out there advocating a carbon tax – as they reportedly are – my bet is that their research shows that this is the best way to not impact their sales. Plus they know that in American politics, asking for a tax is about the best way to make sure that nothing happens If you want to reduce emissions, you simply have to cap emissions on as big a part of the economy as you can swallow, stick to the cap and keep ratcheting the cap down. Over decades, not years.

What the small EU experiment has shown – and yes, covering some 6% of global emissions means it’s small – is that there probably is a role for a central emissions bank to tweak emissions rights supply during extreme economic dislocation. Probably not quite as needed on the top end of the market (where emission credits and domestic abatement can mitigate price spikes), but there could be a role there as well, particularly if the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) continues to underdeliver because of bureaucratic morass, even in bullish economic periods when emission reductions are highly valued.

Despite the initial snickering of being on Fox, The Simpson’s are now among both the longest running and most profitable shows in the history of global television. The network that Barry Diller started with entertainment equivalent of baling wire and scotch tape has gone from being a running joke to televising Super Bowls and having the highest rated shows on the air. Perseverance with emissions trading will similarly pay off in the end far better than any carbon tax. Doing it comparatively “badly” in a first half decade of experimentation has taught us well how to improve the system to achieve the necessary sustainable downward ratchet of carbon emissions over the next 100 years.

Marc Stuart is the Co-Founder and Director of New Business Development for EcoSecurities, a global carbon trading firm. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the view of EcoSecurities

Carbon Offsetting Trends Survey 2008

EcoSecurities and ClimateBiz have just released their survey on carbon offsetting. For those who are members on our sister site CleanTech.Org, we are proud to have supported this project. Thank you to those of you who participated in this survey.

The Executive Summary is as follows:

The voluntary carbon markets continue to welcome new participants on both the supply and demand sides. Companies that previously committed to become carbon neutral appear to be continuing with their offset initiatives in 2008. In Europe, the emergence of the Gold Standard and Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) as the market leading standards is a notable development. The former is facing some minor supply issues which have in our view pushed up its issued price whilst the latter is working with several parties to establish central registries by year end for transfer of ownership and guaranteed retirement.

The primary markets on the development side are very active with new projects coming on line around the world to meet an increase in real demand for VERs and the expected increase in corporate’s looking to balance their unavoidable emissions. In the US, the rapid expansion in demand appears to favour US-located emission reductions, and this same force is shaping the types of offsets most in demand. Forestry remains a standalone sector, which has a real mix in sentiment from buyers. You either love it or you hate it. Whether the projects are reforestation or avoided deforestation, they appear to have mixed feedback in part owing to the lingering questions about effectiveness, immediacy and risk in investing in said projects. Conversely, the types of projects most favoured by this survey’s respondents are well-known projects which have an immediate impact, projects of the ‘charismatic carbon” variety: energy efficiency and wind power. Landfill and agricultural methane collection projects also scored highly in this study.

Reputation is pushing demand not only in types of offset projects in which companies most want to invest, but also in whom they purchase offsets from. When seeking out carbon brokers or retailers, experience and reputation were the top-rated factors, while project types, locations and price rounded out the top five requirements for offset projects.

Interestingly, despite the growth in project development the market has witnessed increases in primary market prices. On the other hand, global economic difficulties do seem to be pushing secondary market prices downwards, thus squeezing the difference between primary and secondary pricing. This perhaps reflects the reduced risk of developing projects as the markets grow and also an increased confidence among larger organizations in originating their own offset projects in the primary markets, a result that surprised us from our survey responses.

Carbon Offsets Work – Will the Mainstream Media Ever Get It?

The carbon markets are an area of keen interest for me personally and professionally, so it is always frustrating that the mainstream media largely refuses to learn the details.

In general, layman and media who don’t understand the details of the carbon markets attack carbon offsets in two areas, first, questioning whether the credits are for a project that would have occurred anyway (a concept known in carbon as “additionality”), and second questioning whether there are checks and balances to ensure the environmental standards are adhered to and the abatement actually happens (in carbon known as the validation and verification processes). The frustrating part for anyone in the industry is that the entire of the carbon credit process set up under Kyoto is all about ensuring the answers to those two questions. Leading certification firms and carbon project developers have been dealing with the details behind those questions for years.

The biggest weakness of the carbon offset process to date has been that the high level of oversight and protection, while working, has led to higher costs and fewer projects getting done, rather than too many. Bottom line, the carbon markets ARE working, and are pouring billions of dollars into fighting global warming, just like the NOx and SOx trading markets helped reduce air pollution faster and cheaper than anyone expected. Now it’s time to figure out how to make them REALLY scale.

I caught up with a friend of mine, Marc Stuart, to give us a little teach in about the real story in carbon offsets, what matters, what does not, what works, and what still needs to be tweaked. Marc should know, he’s one of the founders of EcoSecurities plc (AIM:ECO.L), one of the first, and still the leader in generating and monetizing carbon credits. Marc, thanks for joining us, we appreciate the time and the teach in.

1. Even for those who don’t know much about carbon offsets, many people have heard about the concept of additionality, and almost everyone intuitively understands it at some level. But it is devilishly complicated in practice. I’ve always described it to people as “beyond business as usual”. Can you explain additionality and give us some insight into the details?

Additionality is the core concept of the project-based emissions market. In a nutshell, it means that a developer cannot receive credits for a project that represents “business as usual” (BAU) practices. A classic and often cited example is that industrial forest companies should not be able to get credits simply for replanting the trees that they harvest from their plantations each year, since that is already part of their business model. A utility changing out a 30 year old, fully depreciated turbine would not be able to claim the efficiency benefits, though a utility that swapped out something only five years old might be able to under certain circumstances.

Additionality is easy to definitively prove in cases where there is zero normal economic reason to make an investment, such as reducing HFC-23 from the refrigeration plants or N2O from fertilizer plants. Such projects easily pass a “financial additionality” test, since it’s clear that as a cost without a benefit, they wouldn’t have been economically feasible under a BAU scenario. It gets far more complex though, with assets that contribute to both normal economic outputs and the development of carbon credits, in particular in renewables and energy efficiency. Sometimes these projects are profitable without carbon finance, but there may be other barriers preventing their execution that make them additional.

The UN has developed a very structured and rigorous process that projects must undergo to prove additionality. It is essentially a regulatory process with multiple levels of oversight, in which a body called the Executive Board to the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (The CDM is the international system for creating carbon offsets called CERs) ultimately makes a binary decision about whether a project is eligible to participate or not. Anchored in the middle of that oversight is an audit process run by independent, licensed auditors, the largest of which is actually a multi-national nonprofit called Det Norske Veritas (DNV). However, many projects don’t even make it to that decision point before they are dropped in the process.

2. One of the benefits of carbon offsets often touted by those who support them is the idea that they provide compliance flexibility and liquidity in the early years of a compliance cap and trade system. What are your thoughts on how that works?

The simple reality is that many assets that emit carbon have a long lifetimes and that legitimate investment decisions have been taken in the past that rightfully did not take into account the negative impact of carbon emissions. For an easy example, think about somebody who is a couple of years into a six-year auto loan on a gas guzzler—can policy just force that person to immediately switch to a hybrid, especially since the used car market for his guzzler has now completely disappeared? Even if society says yes, how long would it take for the auto industry to ramp up its production of hybrids? Now look at infrastructure—for example, most power plants and heavy industry facilities have lifetimes of thirty years plus. Even if we were economically and politically able to affect a radical changeover, simply put, the physical capacity for building out new technology is limited, even in a highly accelerated scenario. So, like it or not, GHG emissions from the industrial world are going to take quite a while to stabilize and reduce.

The point of offsets is that, in fairly carbon efficient places like California or Japan, availability of low cost reductions within a cap-and-trade system is quite limited, meaning there is an incentive to look beyond the cap for other, credible, quantifiable, emissions reductions. Reductions in GHGs that are uncapped (either by sector, activity, or geography), such as are found in the CDM, are thus a logical way to achieve real GHG reductions and accelerate dissemination of low carbon technologies. In effect, the past helps subsidize changeover to the future as buyers of emission rights subsidize other, cheaper, GHG mitigation activities. As caps get more restrictive over time, capital changeover occurs. Offsets allow this to occur in an orderly and cost-effective manner.

3. There have been a number of studies questioning whether offsets are just “hot air” and whether carbon offset projects actually achieve real emission reductions. What is your response to these accusations?

As noted in the first question, the CDM in particular is a market that is completely regulated by an international body of experts supported by extensive bureaucracy to ensure that real emission reductions and sustainable development are occurring. The first and foremost requirement of that body is to rule on whether each individual project is additional. Each project is reviewed by qualified Operational Entity, the Executive Board Registration and Issuance Team, the UNFCCC CDM Secretariat and the CDM Executive Board itself. Plus, there are multiple occasions for external observers to make specific comments, which are given significant weight. So, while there is always the chance something could get through, there are a lot of checks and balances in the system to prevent that.

That said, determining an individual emission baseline for a project – the metric against which emission reductions are measured – is a challenging process. The system adjusts to those challenges by trying to be as conservative as possible. In other words, I would argue that in most CDM projects, there are fewer emission reductions being credited than are actually occurring. It is impossible for a hypothetical baseline to be absolutely exact, but it is eminently possible to be conservative. Is it inconceivable that the opposite occasionally occurs and that more emission reductions are credited to a project than are real? We’ve never seen it in the more than 117 projects we’ve registered with the CDM, but I suppose it’s possible.

4. What about the voluntary carbon market in the US, where there have been accusations that many projects would have happened anyway? How is this voluntary market different from what EcoSecurities does under the Clean Development Mechanism?

The voluntary market has had more of a “wild west” reputation compared to the compliance market. In some ways, that is deserved, but in some ways it is unfair. For a number of years, the voluntary market was the only outlet for project developers in places like the United States and in sectors like avoided deforestation that were not recognized by the CDM. However, because there were virtually no barriers to entry and no functional regulation other than what providers would voluntarily undertake, it was difficult for consumers and companies to differentiate between legitimate providers and charlatans. For EcoSecurities, while the voluntary market has been a very small part of our overall efforts, we always qualified projects according to vetted additionality standards such as the CDM and the California Climate Action Registry, and always used independent accredited auditors. With the emergence of stand-alone systems like the Voluntary Carbon Standard (Editors note: Marc Stuart sits on the board of the VCS), and the growing demand for offsets from the corporate sector, I believe the “wild west” frontier is drawing to a close. [Editors note: Other voluntary carbon standards we watch closely include Green-e Climate, put out by the people who certify most of the renewable energy credits (RECs) in the US]

It is also important to note that while the voluntary market has recorded very explosive growth, it is still a very small fraction of the regulatory market, comprising a few tens of millions of dollars of transactions, versus the potential tens of billions of dollars of value embedded in the highly regulated and supervised CDM. The fact that many observers still equate the occasional problems in the fringes of the voluntary market (which are increasingly history) with the real benefits being created in the Kyoto compliance market is a misperception we’d like to correct.

5. What about these projects we’ve heard about in China, where the sale of carbon credits generated from HFC-23 capture is far more valuable than production of the refrigerant gas that leads to its creation in the first place? How is this being addressed in the CDM and how can future systems ensure that there are not perverse incentives created like this?

HFC-23 projects are the epitome of what is often referred to as “low hanging fruit.” In this case, most of the fruit might have actually been sitting on the ground. While there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that the market drove the mitigation of HFC-23 globally, the extreme disparity between the costs of reducing those gases and the market value those reductions commanded invariably led to questions whether there were more socially efficient ways to have reduced those emissions. In all likelihood, there were. But to catalyze an overall market like this, it is probably important to get some easy wins at the outset to create broader investment interest and this certainly accomplished that. Moreover, Kyoto created a mechanism for engaging these kinds of activities. It would have sent a much worse signal to the market to have changed the rules in the middle of the game. The CDM has subsequently adjusted the rules to make sure that no one can put new factories in place simply for the purposes of mitigating their emissions. I don’t see too many other situations like HFCs in the future, simply because there are no other gases where the disparity of mitigation costs and market value is so severe.

5. Given that the majority of CDM projects currently under development are located in China and India, how can we ensure that these countries eventually take on the binding targets we will need to reach the scientifically determined reductions in GHGs? Doesn’t the CDM simple create an incentive for these countries to avoid binding targets as long as possible?

It is clearly in the world’s interest to get as much of the global economy into a low carbon trajectory as quickly as possible. However, it is politically unrealistic to expect these countries—whose emissions per capita are between one fifth and one tenth the per capita of the United States—to make an equivalent commitment at this juncture, particularly considering that they are in the midst of an aggressive development trajectory. The CDM provides a way for ongoing engagement with these countries, developing the basic architecture of a lower carbon economy. And there is no doubt that China’s emissions in 2012, 2015 or 2020 will be measurably lower than they otherwise would have been, simply because of the current accomplishments of the CDM. Over time, the use of project based mechanisms will contribute to accelerating the development and dissemination of low carbon technologies, which will make those negotiations for binding caps from all major economies far more tenable.

6. It is widely believed that to address the climate crisis on the scale necessary to avert dangerous global warming, significant infrastructural and paradigm shifts must occur at an unprecedented scale. Some people are concerned that offsets provide a disincentive for making these shifts, since companies can just offset their emissions instead of making the changes themselves. Is this something you saw under the EU ETS at all, and if so, how can it be addressed in a US system?

Virtually all of the macroeconomic analysis that has been done of Phase I of the ETS shows that there were real emission reductions undertaken within the system, despite the fact that many companies were also actively seeking CDM CERs. Clearly the fact that both Kyoto and the EU ETS system place quantifiable limits on the use of CDM and Joint Implementation (JI) credits guarantees that emission reductions will also be made in-country as well, so pure “outsourcing” of emissions compliance is not possible. This also appears to be the model being pursued in most US legislation.

7. Many have complained that the CDM system is too administratively complex, unpredictable, and that the transaction costs of the system are so significant that they could almost negate any possible benefits. What lessons can be learned about structuring an offset system in a simpler, but still environmentally rigorous way? What steps is the CDM EB taking to address these issues?

The CDM treads a very fine line between ensuring environmental integrity of the offsets that it certifies and the need to have some kind of efficient process within an enormous global regulatory enterprise. To date, one has to think that they have gotten it about right, as business has complained about inefficiency and environmentalists have complained about environmental integrity. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the project by project approval approach is creating logistical challenges as the system graduates from managing dozens, to hundreds, to now, quite literally, thousands of projects in all corners of the world. Ironically, it is the success of the CDM in terms of its very broad uptake by carbon entrepreneurs that is causing problems for the current model.

We believe the benefits of the CDM can be maintained by moving many project types into a more standardized approach, whereby emission reduction coefficients are determined “top-down” by a regulatory body, as opposed to being undertaken individually for every project by project proponents. For example, there are dozens of highly similar wind energy projects in China that all have microscopically different emission baselines. A conservative top down baseline set by the regulator (in this case, the CDM Executive Board) would enable projects to get qualified by the system in an efficient manner with far less bureaucratic overhang. This is how California’s Climate Action Reserve deals with project based reductions and we think that it could work well for many sectors.

8. Is there any difference between a renewable energy certificate (REC) and a carbon offset? Does EcoSecurities support the concept of selling RECs to offset carbon emissions?

While renewable energy clearly helps lower the carbon intensity of the electrical grid, there are a great number of other incentives for development of renewables in the US, including significant Production Tax Credits, and in most states, RECs or Green Tags. For EcoSecurities, this makes it extremely problematic to claim that these assets are additional, despite their obvious benefits to the global environment and decarbonization of the economy. Acknowledging this, EcoSecurities—along with many other companies—has steered clear of developing REC projects for VERs in the voluntary market. There are other firms that have chosen other approaches, which again highlights the need for standardized approaches like the VCS. That said, we are very active in helping create carbon value for RE projects throughout the developing world via the CDM, where incentives such as RECs are almost universally non-existent.

9. There has been a lot of concern about “carbon market millionaires” profiting from selling offsets, and that the only “greening” going on is in the lining of peoples’ pockets. As a carbon market millionaire yourself, what do you think about this concern?

Capital markets exist to reward innovation and punish underperformance. EcoSecurities has existed for more than 11 years and the founders – of which I am one – have devoted more than 15 years to building up various aspects of the carbon market. For many of those years, as we watched friends and colleagues flourish in other markets like internet and biotech, our decision to stay in this seemed fairly quixotic. But we understood enough of the science of climate change to recognize that a fundamental policy response had to be forthcoming, or we would be heading to a global catastrophe. Now those policies have come into focus and the overriding recognition is that society will need to mobilize trillions of dollars of capital to decarbonize the global economy. As part of the proverbial “bleeding edge” for many years, we were ironically well positioned to take advantage when early movers in the capital markets recognized the capabilities and brand that we had built up over a decade. As for whether that is the only greening – well, I can tell you that given the very conservative and difficult aspects of qualifying projects for the CDM, I am 100% certain that our activities contribute solidly to that decarbonization trajectory and that real emission reductions have occurred all over the world because of our efforts.

10) What lessons have you learned personally about the market as a cofounder of the leading CDM project developer in the world? You must have some interesting lessons learned for the US as you are probably unique amongst your competitors in having been based here in the US for over 10 years.

Thanks for the compliment but actually, I’m not that unique. I started in the market in the early 1990’s when the US was the epicenter of a future carbon trading regime, and Europe and Japan looked at it with suspicion and distaste. Quite a number of us from that era did not give up, but instead spent a fair bit of time since then getting our US passports stamped regularly to search the world for projects. It’s nice to see that we may finally be getting back to where we thought we would be a decade ago—with the US as a driving force for innovation in decarbonizing the world’s economy (coincidentally in a recent report produced by the UNFCCC, the US along with Germany, the UK and France provided over 70% of the clean technology currently being utilized in CDM projects). The US is in a perfect position to learn from the both the successes and mistakes within the first Kyoto iteration and I am looking forward to being part of that next stage as well.

11) What do you say to popular press who don’t seem to believe that Kyoto works?

Honestly, you haven’t seen what I have seen. I’ve traveled all over the world and seen the results of Kyoto, where “carbon entrepreneurs” – ranging from divisions within multinationals to garage inventors on their own—are seeking ways to cost effectively reduce GHG emissions. That simply would not have happened without the market signal that Kyoto created. The fact that the CDM has registered more than 1000 projects and has a backlog of several times that – despite the incredible bureaucratic requirements – shows an uptake several magnitudes beyond what anybody predicted when Kyoto was negotiated. When the managing director of a West African oil refinery is proudly detailing to you the steps he’ll be ordering his engineers to take to help save some 250,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, that’s when you realize that you’ve tapped into something significant. And having had the same basic conversation in Mumbai, Jakarta, Sao Paulo and Beijing, you realize that people really want to do something, but that you need a little push from a market. That said, we are still in the first tentative moments of what is probably a century long issue and there are doubtless many improvements that can and will be made. But we have undoubtedly proven that the basic premise works.

Thanks Marc. A pleasure to chat as always. Keep up the good fight.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks, Chairman of, and a blogger for CNET’s Greentech blog. He is also the founder of Carbonflow, a provider of software solutions for the carbon markets.