The voluntary carbon market and sustainable development

The voluntary carbon market (VCM) can support the goals of the Paris Agreement and advance global sustainable development. To achieve this, the sale of carbon credits must finance real emissions reductions and removals, achieve co-benefits wherever possible, and not undermine companies’ own decarbonisation efforts.

If the VCM can address questions over its credibility, it could make two critical contributions to a sustainable transition: (i) pave the way to a net zero and sustainable economy; and (ii) help close finance gaps in sectors such as nature and land use that are critical to the transition.

Key messages

  • The voluntary carbon market (VCM) refers to the global trade in carbon credits that takes place outside the scope of legally mandated (compliance) instruments.
  • The VCM is now at a critical juncture. Once fully formed, its new architecture and norms must create a legitimate and effective role for the VCM within the international climate policy framework.
  • The VCM allows companies and other non-state actors to take action on emissions beyond decarbonising their own value chains to support the global transition to net zero and sustainable development. It can facilitate investments in nature and land-use change.
  • The potential of the VCM in the sustainable transition is undermined by a lack of transparency in non-state actors’ climate mitigation strategies, including whether their use of credits represents additional action, and uncertainty over the quality of credits themselves.
  • Policy uncertainty towards carbon markets, capacity constraints in host countries (where financed activities take place), and low carbon prices are further barriers to beneficial activities receiving finance through the VCM.
  • More clarification is needed on how the VCM can complement carbon market mechanisms created by Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.
  • If forthcoming guidance from leading initiatives is clear, consistent, and workable, it has the potential to support a positive paradigm shift for the VCM that includes a greater focus on contributions to climate mitigation and positive sustainable development impacts, rather than compensation for emissions.
  • The guidance should also enable a radical improvement in transparency, which can contribute to efforts to evaluate impact, address integrity gaps and improve standards over time.
  • Government strategies, laws and regulations should be used to support the VCM to channel finance to priorities not covered by other sources and move towards wider governance of net zero.
  • Indigenous Peoples, local communities, women and other frontline groups should be supported to participate fully in development and implementation of programmes and projects issuing carbon credits.