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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

Call for robust scientific standards and transparency to improve the voluntary carbon market


View looking up into a tree canopy Photo: Shutterstock
Planting trees is one way in which people and businesses look to offset their carbon footprints

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Scientific principles and transparency must lead the conversation about what ‘counts’ for carbon credits to build confidence in the voluntary carbon market (VCM), says the Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG). Meanwhile, new US research challenges the current thinking on the ocean’s role in storing carbon and suggests proactive steps are needed to cut emissions now, rather than relying on these natural processes to ‘buy time’ to mitigate climate change.

Calling for rigorous scientific principles and enhanced transparency to restore confidence in the VCM, the latest report from the CCAG provides seven recommendations aimed at ensuring VCMs contribute effectively to global climate efforts. The recommendations go beyond the Oxford Offsetting principles, which aim to chart a course for organisations to navigate the evolving landscape of carbon markets and offsetting practices.


The report outlines a roadmap for the VCM to overcome recent criticism and rebuild trust by supporting projects that deliver real emissions reductions, as well as equitable financial benefits to local communities.  


The CCAG stresses that robust scientific principles should define what constitutes valid carbon credits to ensure the VCM’s integrity. Transparency is crucial for building confidence, especially in the absence of comprehensive international and state regulations. A transparent system would ensure that measurement methodologies are open to scrutiny and financial flows within the VCM are clearly outlined, thereby reducing opportunities for unethical practices and ensuring fair compensation for project implementers and local communities.


The report recognises that the VCM currently has limitations. It provides guidance on applying rigorous scientific principles to measurement, monitoring and reporting. This approach aims to create a reformed market capable of significantly contributing to climate mitigation efforts. The report also sets boundaries for the legitimate use of carbon credits, emphasising that they should not substitute comprehensive carbon removal and carbon sink preservation initiatives, nor should they offset ‘black’ carbon emissions with vulnerable ‘green’ carbon sinks.


CCAG also recommends the establishment of independent oversight bodies at a national, regional and global level to regulate and standardise carbon credits based on quality and performance rather than quantity of offsets.


‍Commenting on the report’s key recommendations, lead author and CCAG member Professor Mark Maslin, says: ‘There must be a stringent approach and management to VCM practices in order for the market to play a meaningful role in mitigating the climate crisis. However, this will not be achieved without a strong and standardised commitment from all actors within the system. Carbon credits can be viable as part of a set of tools to fund emissions mitigation projects around the world – but their value must be based on clear scientific principles, and deliver real, tangible value to the health of the planet.’


Professor Mercedes Bustamante, a CCAG member, highlights the potential for the VCM to deliver co-benefits to local communities, particularly in the Global South. She cautions against the misallocation of funds and the concentration of wealth, advocating for a rigorous system that ensures equitable resource distribution to support the clean energy transition.


Chair of the CCAG, Sir David King, adds: ‘There is no doubt that the voluntary carbon market faces immense challenges if it is to play a significant role moving forward. But I do believe that if it is based on robust scientific principles and is implemented transparently, the VCM has the potential to be a significant force for good. The science is clear: we need to be pulling every lever available to us to help tackle the climate crisis. This is one such lever and we should be doing everything possible to ensure that it is fit for purpose.’


New findings challenge current thinking on the ocean’s role in storing carbon  

Meanwhile, recent findings from research at the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reveal that the relationship between the ocean’s circulation and its long-term capacity to store carbon might be different than previously understood.  


As climate change progresses, the ocean’s overturning circulation is predicted to weaken, reducing the ocean’s ability to pull down CO2 from the atmosphere. However, new research suggests that this weaker circulation could also lead to more carbon being released from the deep ocean into the atmosphere.


The study, led by MIT researcher Jonathan Lauderdale, explores a feedback mechanism involving ocean iron availability, upwelling carbon and nutrients, surface microorganisms, and ligands – a class of molecules that affect iron solubility in the ocean. Lauderdale’s research indicates that a slower ocean circulation could lead to less carbon and nutrient upwelling, which in turn reduces phytoplankton growth. This reduction in phytoplankton limits the ocean’s capacity to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, potentially increasing atmospheric CO2 levels.


The research findings suggest that current assumptions about the ocean’s role in mitigating climate change may need to be re-evaluated. Lauderdale also points out that climate models predicting a 30% slowdown in ocean circulation due to melting ice sheets, particularly around Antarctica, could result in a significant increase in atmospheric CO2 levels. This unexpected feedback highlights the need for immediate and substantial efforts to reduce anthropogenic emissions.  


‘We can’t count on the ocean to store carbon in the deep ocean in response to future changes in circulation. We must be proactive in cutting emissions now, rather than relying on these natural processes to buy us time to mitigate climate change,’ he says.


The study underscores the complexity of oceanic and atmospheric interactions and the importance of incorporating detailed biological and chemical processes into climate models. Lauderdale’s research will be published in the journal Nature Communications, providing a new perspective on the interplay between ocean circulation and atmospheric carbon levels.