How long have you been working in carbon markets and what got you interested?
For twelve years. I started out in California, then moved to China for five years before coming to Europe in 2012. I took a terrific course in graduate school at the Monterey Institute taught by Professor Jason Scorse, a proponent of Pigouvian economic theory which points out that positive and negatively externalities often aren’t included in the price or a good or service. The fact that we’re not fully paying for pollution or any other environmental externality was a lightbulb moment for me. It inspired me to make carbon pricing and climate policy my life’s work.
What does South Pole do and what’s your role?
South Pole is a climate solutions company. We help other companies and public sector organizations take climate action. We provide advice, manage funds with investments of over $100 million in the past ten years, and help customers measure their carbon footprint and find the right carbon offset products. I lead our ten-member climate policy and carbon pricing advisory team, which works with some of our most important public sector and corporate clients.
What is Article 6 of the Paris Agreement and why is it important?
It allows low-emitting countries to sell their excess emission allowance to higher-emitting countries. Countries can therefore look outside their borders for opportunities to reduce emissions, which gives them greater flexibility. The climate crisis won’t be solved by individual countries acting alone. Article 6 is important because it enables them to work together and thus do more to protect the earth’s climate. That’s why it’s crucial for COP26, which will be held in Glasgow in November 2021, to reach agreement on how to implement Article 6.
What are carbon credits and how do they work?
Carbon credits are measurable, verifiable emission reductions from activities—like renewable-energy or forestation projects—that avoid or displace fossil fuels or sequester greenhouse gases. These activities must also need climate finance. In short, they must be additional to activities that would’ve taken place anyway. Carbon credits are subject to rigorous verification by two third-party agencies and to a review by a panel of experts at a leading carbon offset standard like Verra or Gold Standard. After an organization or an individual buys a carbon credit, the credit must be permanently retired so it can’t be reused. A carbon credit involves a lot of steps and a lot of oversight.
Critics of carbon credits contend that they perpetuate bad habits: companies simply continue to emit carbon and pay a small fee for emissions to be reduced elsewhere. What’s your response?
This criticism is one-sided and, to be honest, is becoming tiresome. Companies buy offsets voluntarily. They do this either in addition to their legally mandated obligations or because their emissions aren’t regulated. Why criticize companies for voluntarily spending money on climate action? Criticism should be directed instead at governments that aren’t instituting carbon pricing (U.S., Japan, Australia) or at governments whose carbon pricing doesn’t cover the entire economy. For example, Europe’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) may finally—15 years after its inception—be extended beyond power generation, heavy industry, and airlines to encompass sectors like maritime transport, road transport, and building-specific heating. Governments need to move faster. Critics should spur them to do so.
How have carbon markets evolved over the past decade?
Tremendously. The Kyoto Protocol, which took effect in 2005, required only developed countries—36 in all—to set a binding emission-reduction target. They could meet their target in part by buying offsets from Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) or Joint Implementation (JI) projects. The Paris Agreement of 2015, by contrast, requires all 197 signatories to submit emission-reduction plans. Similarly, the CDM’s successor, the Sustainable Development Mechanism, will be available to all parties, which gives it a much wider scope. As for carbon pricing, about 40 countries have some sort of mechanism. I hope many more join in. This would move us steadily closer to a global carbon price. Without it, countries will continue to ignore the negative externalities of their greenhouse gas emissions.
Has corona affected carbon markets, and what are the trends going forward?
Right now, markets are most affected by low carbon prices, which result from weaker demand for carbon allowances in the EU, California, China, and other markets. Thankfully, so far no government has delayed the creation or growth or creation of a carbon market. Looking into the future, I’m inspired by Joe Biden’s ambitious climate plan for the United States. He aims to propel America’s energy transition while simultaneously creating jobs. I’m hopeful that governments worldwide will look for ways to tie carbon pricing to job creation and to use revenues from carbon pricing to support underserved communities. That will help ensure that carbon pricing is fair and doesn’t harm the most vulnerable members of our society.
Jeff Swartz leads South Pole’s advisory practice on carbon pricing and climate policy. Prior to this, he was Managing Director at the International Emissions Trading Association, which played a key role in in the 2015 Paris Agreement. He also spent five years in Beijing working on the UN CDM and earlier served in the U.S. Department of State. Jeff holds an M.A. in International Environmental Policy from Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey as well as degrees in Chinese and International Relations from the University of the Pacific.