March 14th, 2010, by John Shideler

The global carbon analysis consultancy Point Carbon released its fifth annual survey on March 3. “Carbon 2010: Return of the Sovereign,” edited by E. Tvinnereim and K. Røine, is based on 4,767 survey responses. Respondents were either elicited by Point Carbon to respond in January and February 2010 or voluntarily participated through the organization’s website. The number of respondents this year grew 29% compared to 2009.

The largest number of respondents came from the United States (753), followed by the United Kingdom (445), India (231), Australia (224), Germany (199), Canada (187), Norway (138), China (135) and Brazil (104). Smaller numbers of respondents came from an additional 109 countries. The authors of the survey caution that the poll is not representative of general public opinion as sizable numbers of respondents are involved in emissions trading (39%), are regulated under the European Union Emissions Trading System (24%), are associated with financial institutions (13%), or are involved in the US emissions offset market (11%).

The “Carbon 2010” report covers carbon markets and policies in 2009, the future of carbon trading and policy in 2010 and beyond, and concludes with some crystal-ball gazing it labels “the return of the sovereign.” In this vision of the future a binding international climate treaty regime is superseded by a country-by-country “pledge and review” system. The complete report runs 40 pages.

Readers of this report will find much to ponder. We found responses to a set of four questions assessing voluntary carbon markets particularly interesting. Point Carbon has asked the same questions three years in a row, so trends over time among survey respondents can be discerned. Nearly 80% (3,777) of the total number of survey respondents answered these four questions.

In 2010, 51% of survey respondents agreed with the statement “The voluntary carbon market fosters innovation in emission reduction methods.” This compares to 42% who gave the same answer in 2009 and 40% who agreed in 2008.

At the same time, only 38% of survey respondents in 2010 agreed with the statement “The voluntary carbon market produces real emission reductions.” Nonetheless, this number is up from 32% in 2009 and 27% in 2008. This level of belief in the reality of voluntary carbon offsets is disturbingly low, especially when the survey population is, on average, much better informed than the general public.

One positive conclusion that can be drawn from an analysis of the answers to these two questions is that increasing numbers of respondents believe that voluntary emission reduction projects can contribute to the mitigation of climate change.

Perhaps the sizable number of respondents who withheld agreement from the second statement did so because they believe emissions trading should occur in the framework of a regulatory system, and fear that lower standards in a voluntary trading system could compromise broad support for a regulatory system. The latter conclusion appears to be buttressed by responses to a third question, with which 36% of survey respondents in 2010 agreed: “The voluntary carbon market poses a risk for the reputation of the compliance market.” Voluntary market supporters may take solace from the fact that the trend is down on the answer to this question. The percentage who agreed in 2009 was 37, and in 2008, 40.

Finally, a fourth question in this series asked for agreement with the following statement: “The voluntary carbon market is transparent.” The percentage of respondents agreeing in 2010, 2009 and 2008 were, respectively, 18, 14, and 10.

The last question may provide another clue to the tepid support for voluntary carbon markets expressed in the first two questions reported on here. Without transparency, there can be only limited trust, and without trust, only the bravest will invest. In this respect a positive sign from the Carbon 2010 survey is that the trend line is improving. However, it is difficult to conclude that voluntary carbon trading does not face an uphill battle for acceptance when only 18% of knowledgeable survey respondents agree that voluntary carbon markets are “transparent.”

Reasons exist to expect this number to grow in future years. The most popular voluntary emission reduction credits, Climate Reserve Tonnes (CRTs) and Voluntary Carbon Units (VCUs), use registry platforms that are publicly accessible and ensure that verified tons are issued serial numbers and can be traced back to the projects that generated them. In addition, greenhouse gas validation and verification bodies (VVBs) operating in the US increasingly are accredited by the American National Standards Institute to ISO 14065, an international standard that prescribes requirements for the operation of a VVB.

Nonetheless, the results of the Carbon 2010 survey are still sobering for those who believe voluntary carbon offset markets have an important role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Nothing less than adherence to the highest standards of rigor in developing, reporting and verifying voluntary greenhouse gas emission reductions is needed if the improvements in sentiment found in Carbon 2010 are to continue to grow in coming years.

© Futurepast: Inc., 2010

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