Journal Article

On the Importance of Baseline Setting in Carbon Offsets Markets

Aug 1, 2016 | Antonio Miguel Bento, Ravi Kanbur, Benjamin Leard

Summary

Tailoring the baseline stringency of carbon offsets programs to address over-credited offsets and under-credited emissions reductions can help maintain the environmental integrity of such programs without sacrificing their substantial cost savings.

Key Findings

  • The emissions impacts of over-credited offsets can be fully balanced out by under-credited emissions reductions without sacrificing a significant portion of the overall supply of offsets, provided emissions baselines are stringent enough.
  • As predicted uncertainty about business-as-usual emissions declines or as the carbon market achieves higher equilibrium prices, less stringent baselines can balance the emissions impacts of over-credited offsets and under-credited emissions reductions.
  • To maintain the environmental integrity of offsets programs, baseline stringency should be tailored to project characteristics and market conditions that influence the proportion of over-credited offsets to under-credited emissions reductions.

Abstract

Incorporating carbon offsets in the design of cap-and-trade programs remains a controversial issue because of its potential unintended impacts on emissions. At the heart of this discussion is the issue of crediting of emissions reductions. Projects can be correctly, over- or under-credited for their actual emissions reductions. We develop a unified framework that considers the supply of offsets within a cap-and-trade program that allows us to compare the relative impact of over-credited offsets and under-credited emissions reductions on overall emissions under different levels of baseline stringency and carbon prices. In the context of a national carbon pricing scheme that includes offsets, we find that the emissions impacts of over-credited offsets can be fully balanced out by under-credited emissions reductions without sacrificing a significant portion of the overall supply of offsets, provided emissions baselines are stringent enough. In the presence of high predicted business-as-usual (BAU) emissions uncertainty or low carbon prices, to maintain the environmental integrity of the program, baselines need to be set at stringent levels, in some cases below 50 percent of predicted BAU emissions. As predicted BAU emissions uncertainty declines or as the carbon market achieves higher equilibrium prices, however, less stringent baselines can balance out the emissions impacts of over-credited offsets and under-credited emissions reductions. These results imply that to maintain environmental integrity of offsets programs, baseline stringency should be tailored to project characteristics and market conditions that influence the proportion of over-credited offsets to under-credited emissions reductions.