Why Non-Nature-Based Credits Are the Future of Carbon Markets

October 9, 2023

The landscape of carbon offsetting is rapidly evolving. Historically, nature-based credits, particularly those generated by forestry and land-use projects such as REDD+, have dominated the market. However, recent developments have significantly dented their credibility, bringing their limitations into sharp focus. As a result, market leaders are shifting their attention to non-nature-based credits to meet their offsetting needs. In this blog post, we will delve into why non-nature-based credits not only represent a viable alternative, but also the future of carbon markets.

Nature-Based vs. Non-Nature-Based Carbon Market Share (Capturiant Estimates)

The Fall from Grace: Nature-Based Credits

In January 2023, an investigative report by The Guardian revealed that “more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by [Verra] are worthless.” This news was a significant blow to the market’s confidence in nature-based credits, and the CEO of Verra resigned a few months afterward. As an indication of how far nature-based projects have fallen, in September Bill Gates disparaged the idea that climate change would be stopped by planting trees as “complete nonsense.” With sentiment clearly shifting against nature-based efforts, a vacuum has been created in the market.

The Rise of Non-Nature-Based Credits

On September 12, Amazon announced its investment in Occidental subsidiary 1PointFive’s direct air capture (DAC) facility. This decision is a clear signal that major players are aligning themselves with non-nature-based credits in recognition of the improved reliability, scale, and permanence. Scalability is particularly important: while the largest nature-based projects may claim a couple million tons of carbon offset per year, non-nature-based projects can have an annual impact of hundreds of millions of tons. Moreover, as regulators increasingly put companies’ environmental impact claims under scrutiny, corporations will want to be sure the credits they buy are trustworthy. Non-nature-based credits are much more measurable and reliable, and thus more likely to stand up to scrutiny, than nature-based credits.

Non-nature-based credits encompass a diverse range of technological and legal solutions aimed at offsetting carbon emissions. These include:

  1. Direct air capture (DAC) projects which mechanically extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for storage or utilization are one popular example.
  2. Sequestration-in-place (SIP) projects, where legal mechanisms are established to prevent the extraction of petrochemicals, thus averting the release of carbon emissions they would otherwise produce.
  3. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which involves capturing CO2 emissions at their source — usually industrial plants, but potentially oil fields as well — and securely storing them underground.
  4. Renewable energy projects, involving wind, solar, and hydro power, also contribute to non-nature-based credits by displacing fossil-fuel energy production.

Additionally, credits can be generated through industrial processes that reduce or eliminate emissions, waste-to-energy projects, and more. Each of these options offers a unique set of advantages and challenges, but collectively, they represent a dynamic and scalable path forward for carbon offsetting.

Advantages over Nature-Based Credits

  1. Permanence: Unlike trees that can be cut down or forests that can burn, non-nature-based credits provide a more durable solution to carbon offsetting.
  2. Scalability: Technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS) can be rapidly scaled to meet growing demand, unlike nature-based solutions, which are limited by available land and ecological constraints.
  3. Accuracy: Nature-based credits often rely on estimations and averages (or even averages of averages) in declaring project impact. In contrast, the fundamental technological basis of non-nature-based projects ensures that emissions impact can be directly measured and verified, with a strong scientific basis.

The Road Ahead

Non-nature-based credits offer a more robust and scalable approach to carbon offsetting. While nature-based credits have their place, they should not be the linchpin of a long-term carbon offset strategy. The market is waking up to this reality, and we should expect to see non-nature-based credits taking center stage in the years to come.

The shift towards non-nature-based credits is not just a trend but a necessary evolution in the carbon offset market. As major players like Amazon invest in technological solutions, it’s clear that the future lies in non-nature-based credits. They offer a reliable, scalable, and permanent alternative to nature-based credits, which have been marred by credibility issues and fundamental limitations.

As we face the escalating crisis of climate change, it’s time to re-evaluate and adopt strategies that are not just good on paper but effective in practice. Non-nature-based credits offer this effectiveness, making them the future of carbon markets.

This article was written by Will Baird (Director, Capturiant) and James C. Row, CFA (Founder and CEO, Capturiant).

Disclaimer: This blog post is for informational purposes only and should not be considered as financial or investment advice.

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