This article focuses on Robert Andrén, head of the Swedish energy agency, who has defended the UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) as a standard for carbon offset projects.

The problem highlighted by DN is that of “additionality”. If money from offsetting is used to co-finance a hydropower project that would have been built even without this money, can it even be called carbon offsetting?  The Clean Development Mechanism clearly says no. This is because “additionality” is a basic requirement for the project to be recognised by the CDM. And according to the mechanism, only those projects may be funded that are “additional”, i.e. which would not be possible without money from offsets.

However, a study cited by DN, which looks at over 1,000 CDM projects, has concluded that, despite certification, most CDM projects are not additional because it is very likely they would have been undertaken anyway. Reality is often less clear than the rules: for example, until a few years ago, solar power had to be heavily subsidised, but today it is considered the cheapest way of generating electricity in many regions of the world. So, the question is, until when exactly was offsetting “additional”? The Director General of the Swedish Energy Agency, Robert Andrén, defends investments in projects like these: “To look back and say it would have happened anyway is easy. But you don’t know at that moment how electricity prices will change. The CDM system is not perfect, but we don’t have another.”

atmosfair comments

We agree with the criticism. Additionality is the Achilles heel of many projects. The study cited by DN looks to be a 2016 study by the German Öko Institut which indeed concludes that most offset projects are not additional. We have been referring to this ground-breaking study since its publication and have linked to it on our website.

Unfortunately the Gold Standard, which we at atmosfair use in addition to the CDM, does not provide better rules regarding additionality, a shortcoming we have criticised.We think that none of the existing project standards is really sufficient and therefore we have established our own criteria that go beyond established standards. These stipulate that a minimum proportion of project costs, depending on the technology, needs to be covered by offset funds, and that the use of funds for key technical components be well documented.

At atmosfair, we use the CDM primarily as a framework for transparency and governance. Every atmosfair project is documented in great detail to be registered by the UN. After it has been approved, accredited auditors who are liable for their audit results measure the emissions reductions on a yearly basis. The results are published by the UN on their own websites, independently of atmosfair. Everyone can see for themselves what auditors have measured in each project and which authorities in host countries have approved the projects.

Links and further information

DN article “Director General of the Energy Agency: We must believe in this system” (Swedish)

atmosfair: Offsetting standards for high-quality offsetting

Öko-Insitut: “How additional is the Clean Development Mechanism?” Study, 2016