Everything You Need to Know About Carbon Credits

Harmful emissions in our atmosphere continue to rise despite efforts from governments and businesses. This is why the Paris Agreement was created and, subsequently, carbon credits. The Paris Agreement is an international treaty that combats climate change and aims to limit global warming to below 2 degrees, ideally to 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels. To achieve this and reach the net zero target by 2050, countries that are part of the agreement desire to curb the creation of greenhouse gas emissions. A carbon credit is generated for each ton of carbon dioxide that a government or business manages to reduce or avoid.

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What are carbon credits?

Carbon credits are a financial instrument. A financial instrument is an asset that can be traded or seen as capital that may be traded. A single carbon credit represents the ownership of 1 ton of carbon dioxide. Carbon credits are created when a project avoids or reduces the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The reason carbon credits exist is to aid the movement in decreasing carbon dioxide emissions and reducing the effects of global warming.

How are carbon credits verified?

Before greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions can be considered carbon credits, they must undergo a rigorous certification process and prove they meet carbon offset criteria. Once approved by these ISO-accredited third-party verifiers, these carbon credits are issued and tracked on an official registry so that reductions are accurately accounted for.

The top three major verifiers in the carbon market are:

  • The Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) – The VCS defines the rules and requirements that all offset projects must follow in order to be certified. An organization named Verra (formerly Verified Carbon Emissions Standard) oversees the VCS program and is accountable for updating the VCS rules. They are a global standard for voluntary GHG emission reductions and removals.
  • The Climate Action Reserve (CAR) – CAR is an offset program based in the United States that ensures transparency in North America’s voluntary carbon market. They oversee several independent third-party verification organizations and issue and track carbon credits generated from offset projects in a publicly accessible system. CAR’s GHG emission reduction program is approved under the VCS. 
  • The Gold Standard –The Gold Standard program is open to any non-government, community-based organization. It is a certification program that aims to ensure that carbon credits are verifiable and that projects make measurable contributions to sustainable development. A project must comply with the UN Millennium Development Goals and reduce one of the three GHGs – carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide – to qualify for Gold Standard Certification.
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How are carbon credits calculated?

There is an emission factor associated with every activity that emits GHGs. The combustion of a gallon of gasoline emits the equivalent of about 86 grams of CO2, or about 1% of a metric ton of GHGs (<1 carbon credit). However, the most important thing to remember is that one carbon credit is equal to one ton of carbon dioxide (or methane or nitrous oxide) prevented from entering the atmosphere.

How To Invest In Carbon Credits

The easiest way to start investing in carbon credits is through carbon mutual funds or ETFs (exchange-traded funds). ETFs are one of the most straightforward and low-risk ways to invest. These are pooled investment funds that track the performance of carbon markets. They can be purchased or sold, in the same way as any other regular stock.  

Another way is to invest in stocks of individual companies that generate or actively trade carbon credits. This indirectly invests in the marketplaces that sell these credits.

Some companies have business models focused on investing in new and innovative ways to address climate change. These business models provide investors with targeted exposure to carbon projects across many industries.

You will also find that project developers often work with brokers to arrange the sale of their carbon credits. In this case, your company would get in touch with a broker and give them specifics about the type of project you are interested in (location, price, etc.). The broker would then locate a carbon-reducing project that meets your specifications and purchase the necessary carbon credits on your behalf. Once the carbon credits have been acquired, the broker could resell them to you at a markup. Going through a broker will allow you not to have to deal directly with any purchase or legal work yourself. 

Who Buys Carbon Credits?

You don’t have to be a multi-million dollar corporation to purchase carbon credits because, essentially, anyone can buy them. Individuals or small businesses are able to acquire a small number of carbon credits or offsets if that’s what is needed. 

Capital Monitor analyzed that the Walt Disney Company and Microsoft Corporation were two of the biggest buyers of carbon credits between 2018-2020. This analysis also found that the renewable energy and forestry industry dominates the offset market by a significant mark. 

The Difference Between Carbon Credits and Carbon Offsets

Fundamentally, carbon credits and carbon offsets are two different ways for corporations to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change by being able to compensate for their carbon footprint. 

The terms can often get used interchangeably, but they serve different purposes. 

Carbon offsets are purchased to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, whereas carbon credits are purchased to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases. 

The idea behind carbon offsets is simple: by paying to have the same amount of emissions reduced somewhere else. By using carbon offsets, consumers effectively ‘neutralize’ their own emissions to reduce their overall carbon footprint.

Carbon offsets come from certified green-energy projects, such as solar power projects, wind farms and methane-capture operations at landfills or dairy farms. The carbon offset market includes projects that plant trees or work toward forest preservation.

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