What Are Carbon Credits?

Carbon credits are a key component of national and international emissions trading schemes that have been implemented to mitigate global warming. They provide a way to reduce greenhouse effect emissions on an industrial scale by capping total annual emissions and letting the market assign a monetary value to any shortfall through trading.

There are two distinct types of Carbon Credits: Carbon Offset Credits (COC’s) and Carbon Reduction Credits (CRC’s). Carbon Offset Credits consist of clean forms of energy production, wind, solar, hydro and biofuels. Carbon Reduction Credits consists of the collection and storage of Carbon from our atmosphere through reforestation, forestation, ocean and soil collection and storage efforts. Credits can be exchanged between businesses or bought and sold in international markets at the prevailing market price. Credits can be used to finance carbon reduction schemes between trading partners and around the world. 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.

Emission Markets

For trading purposes, one allowance or CER is considered equivalent to one metric tonne of CO2 emissions. These allowances can be sold privately or in the international market at the prevailing market price. These trade and settle internationally and hence allow allowances to be transferred between countries. Each international transfer is validated by the UNFCCC. Each transfer of ownership within the European Union is additionally validated by the European Commission. 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 five exchanges trading in carbon allowances: the Chicago Climate Exchange, European Climate Exchange, Nord Pool, PowerNext and the European Energy 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. 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.”

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