Why we can't give up on carbon markets

Robert Cobbold


Sept. 25, 2023

Few efforts to address climate change have attracted as much criticism as carbon credits. It’s been 25 years since they were introduced in the Kyoto protocol, and even now, not everyone in the climate space is convinced they have done more harm than good. Even for those who believe in their potential, almost no-one would argue they are anywhere near maturity.


Generally speaking, this is because carbon markets have been designed by and for large corporates and perpetuate the same injustices which play out in financial markets. Centralized gatekeepers and financial intermediaries act as bottlenecks, exploiting the indigenous communities who steward 80% of the world’s biodiversity, or putting up barriers to entry which exclude them altogether.


If you are a carbon market skeptic then don’t stop reading. We are as strong a critic of the incumbent institutions and practices as anyone else. We see all the same problems, the perverse incentives and the market failures. In fact it is for precisely these reasons that Native exists.


Barclays have estimated that voluntary carbon markets could be worth $250bn by 2030, while the We Mean Business Coalition has estimated that if 1,700 of the highest emitting companies offset just 10% of their emissions it would mobilize as much as $1 trillion within the same time period. However broken they may be, there is simply no other mechanism which has the potential to channel private capital to the protection and regeneration of the world's most precious and biodiverse ecosystems on this scale, or at anything like the speed necessary to avoid catastrophe.


For this reason, we simply cannot afford to turn our backs on them altogether. It’s the biggest lever we have and even if that lever is broken, walking away altogether is as likely to result in catastrophe as continuing to use it in its current broken state.


Although we are sympathetic to much of the negative reporting around carbon markets recently, our concern is that it will divide the climate space into two camps: one who throws up their hands in despair and walks away altogether, and the other which doubles down on current practice under the impression that this is the only way to rescue the good work that has been done so far in this space.

Native is here to offer a third way: a solution which does not throw the baby out with the bathwater, nor conforms to mainstream practice. Like any successful evolutionary adaptation Native seeks to repurpose and build on what already exists, to find simplicity on the other side of complexity.


After decades of working in the climate space from almost every angle imaginable, from classrooms to UN negotiations, the Native team believe we have a good understanding of how carbon markets can be improved.

Using readily available technology and publicly available information, Native are developing an accreditation process, a marketplace and a map which together will increase the transparency, fairness and holism of Nature-based Solutions (NbS) in the voluntary carbon market. We will help small-scale stewards and indigenous communities access NbS markets equitably, unlocking much needed finance for the world’s most biodiverse regions and vulnerable communities. 


Most importantly we are trying to move the conversation on from a myopic focus on carbon alone, and its two evil sisters “carbon neutral” and “net zero”. To reduce a rainforest to a tonne of carbon is almost the perfect example of our left-brain biased civilization running amok. Hence “Holism” - the attempt to leave behind misguided attempts at objectivity and instead to embrace nuance, complexity and subjectivity, to integrate (not all, but at least more) aspects of what an ecosystem is and to value it accordingly.


We do so with some trepidation. Methodologies are ultimately trying to do something which is impossible. The natural world is priceless, and attempting to put a price on it is both philosophically and technically problematic. 


We would like to acknowledge this without reservation at the outset and to embrace all the inherent contradictions and risks, because we believe that it’s worth proceeding even in the face of these difficulties.


Because however cognisant we are of nature’s intrinsic value - markets are simply not equipped to read and process this kind of warm data. Short of undoing the entire market economy we must find a way of approximating nature’s value so that markets can factor it into decision making. When it comes to markets, it is regrettably true that “what gets measured gets managed”.

Native is not, ultimately, a vision of the ideal world we would like to live in. But it is, hopefully, a solution which can help us get from where we are a little further along the way.


As we are all well aware, there is no time to lose. There are a hundred ways to get this wrong and very few to get it right. 


We don’t pretend to have all the answers and welcome any criticism or feedback about how we can more accurately value what must be protected.


To find out more email contact@nativeearth.io