Half way through the first week of climate talks in Lima, Jonathan Shopley joins Christiana Figueres and government representatives on a panel to discuss how voluntary offsetting can be used to fill the gaps in countries' emission reduction ambitions. Will this be the new normal?

COP20: Is Voluntary Action the New Normal?

We know that the outcomes from the COP20 climate negotiations in Lima are going to be critical to the deal that nations hope to conclude in Paris this time next year. In our preview of Lima, I laid out the challenges, knowing already that a binding top-down agreement is virtually out of the question.  What we’re looking for in Lima are signs that bottom-up commitments by all nations will be made, measured, and actioned and that reductions in aggregate put us on a path to a stable climate.  There is no silver bullet, and all avenues are being explored in Lima through hundreds of discussions and negotiation sessions during these two weeks.

At a roundtable convened by the International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance (ICROA), International Emissions Trading Association (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.  

Christiana Figueres, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (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.

In addition Christiana made two other important observations – first that progress on negotiations was glacial; and second, 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 to 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:

As is mostly the case at COPs, there were more questions than answers.  However, still 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 the new climate agreement hopefully comes into force.