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Lost in documentation: Transparency in voluntary carbon market registries

Transparent and accurate information is vital to ensuring that the unregulated voluntary carbon market functions fairly and effectively. Carbon standards play a pivotal role in establishing and enforcing rules for information disclosure, yet not a single one of the main standards provides full disclosure, though they vary widely in their level of transparency.

This analysis assesses the public availability of project documentation across the four main voluntary carbon market registries: Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), Gold Standard (GS), American Carbon Registry (ACR), and the Climate Action Reserve (CAR). These standards were selected as they collectively issue the majority of the world’s (voluntary market) carbon credits.

Project design documents (PDDs), validation reports (VaRs), monitoring reports (MRs), and verification reports (VeRs) were evaluated for availability across the registries, as not only do these indicate depth of transparency but also contain virtually all information regarding the environmental and social impact of a project. The Integrity Council for Voluntary Carbon Markets (ICVCM) mandates that all relevant documentation related to climate mitigation activities is publicly available. Our analysis interprets how effectively carbon standards maintain transparency across their registries, aligning with the transparency requirements outlined by the ICVCM.

A total stratified sample of 140 projects were evaluated, drawing a maximum of seven projects representing the six largest methodologies by issuance volume from each of the four standards. Only projects that are registered and have issued credits were eligible for inclusion in the sampling. From this sample we uncovered notable limitations in transparency practices.

Discrepancies were found between the standards, divided into two main categories. Firstly, inadequate rule-setting, such as optional disclosure of specific document types. Notably CAR and ACR do not mandate the public disclosure of monitoring reports. Secondly, insufficient enforcement of purposeful rules. This affected each standard but multiple projects in Gold Standard in particular were lacking in identifiable public documentation. Across our sample of 140 projects, a total of 444 project documents were missing. Furthermore, documents listed on registries are routinely mislabelled, mis-categorised, duplicated or otherwise lacking clarity. In certain cases, the project location was incorrectly displayed on project pages.

Feedback from rating agencies supports these findings. Rating agencies reported similar difficulties in accessing project documentation and data. However, they acknowledge improvements and efforts that have been made to address this issue.

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