The Relevance of Voluntary and Compliant Carbon Markets: Exploring Differences and Predicting the Future

Opening Statement

As the world confronts the undeniable realities of climate change, diverse strategies have emerged to combat its far-reaching effects. One such strategy that has garnered attention is the development of carbon markets. These markets, designed to incentivise businesses to curb their carbon emissions economically, have become increasingly prominent in global climate discussions. Yet, as with any solution, they come with complexities, intricacies, and debates. Central to this discourse is the distinction between voluntary and compliant carbon markets. Before diving into the depths of this topic, it’s crucial to understand the essence of these markets, their implications, and the broader context in which they operate.

This article seeks to do just that: to elucidate the role and relevance of both voluntary and compliant carbon markets in our ongoing battle against climate change while also speculating on their potential convergence in the future. As we navigate the challenges and opportunities of carbon trading, this piece sheds light on its nuances and predicts the trajectories it might take in the coming years.


In recent years, the global concern over climate change and its adverse effects has propelled the significance of carbon markets. Carbon markets provide a mechanism for companies to voluntarily offset their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through voluntary or compliant means. This article aims to discuss the relevance of both voluntary and compliant carbon markets, highlight their differences, and ultimately examine whether the voluntary market will be compelled to comply with scope three emissions and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) scores.

Scope three emissions refer to all indirect emissions (other than direct emissions from owned or controlled sources and electricity-induced emissions) that occur in a company’s value chain, including both upstream and downstream emissions. These encompass emissions from activities such as purchased goods, transportation and distribution, investments, employee commute, and end-of-life product disposal, among others.

Relevance of Voluntary Carbon Markets

Voluntary carbon markets (VCMs) have gained traction as a response to the growing demand for corporate social responsibility and sustainability. These markets allow organisations to voluntarily offset emissions by investing in carbon reduction projects. The primary relevance of VCMs lies in their ability to go beyond regulatory requirements, enabling companies to demonstrate their commitment to mitigating climate change. VCMs provide flexibility, allowing organisations to take responsibility for their emissions voluntarily, regardless of their size or sector.

One significant advantage of VCMs is their potential to foster innovation and promote the development of new technologies. Companies participating in VCMs are encouraged to invest in renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, and other sustainable practices. By doing so, they contribute to the scaling-up of low-carbon solutions, leading to a more sustainable and resilient economy.

Relevance of Compliant Carbon Markets

Compliant carbon markets, also known as regulated markets, operate under government-mandated frameworks such as cap-and-trade systems or emissions trading schemes. These markets are essential in ensuring regulatory compliance and meeting national or international emission reduction targets. Compliant markets provide a structured approach to carbon reduction by setting emission caps and allocating allowances, which can be traded among participants.

The relevance of compliant carbon markets lies in their ability to drive significant emissions reductions across industries. By imposing binding emission targets, these markets incentivise companies to adopt cleaner technologies, improve energy efficiency, and gradually transition to low-carbon alternatives. Compliant markets encourage collaboration between governments and businesses to achieve collective emission reduction goals.

Differences between Voluntary and Compliant Carbon Markets

While both voluntary and compliant carbon markets aim to address climate change, there are notable differences between the two. Firstly, participation in voluntary markets is entirely voluntary, allowing companies to offset their emissions without legal requirements. In contrast, compliant markets operate under regulatory frameworks that mandate emission reductions and compliance with set targets.

Secondly, voluntary markets offer more flexibility in terms of project types and locations, allowing companies to choose projects that align with their values or operational strategies. Compliant markets, on the other hand, have stricter guidelines for project eligibility and often prioritise projects that deliver verifiable emission reductions.

Finally, voluntary markets primarily rely on the demand from companies and individuals willing to offset their emissions. In contrast, compliant markets are driven by policy decisions and regulatory frameworks set by governments, making them more responsive to national or international emission reduction commitments.

Forecasting the Future: Voluntary Market and Compliance

As the urgency to tackle climate change intensifies, a growing debate exists on whether the voluntary market will be forced into compliance through scope three emissions and ESG scores. Scope three emissions refer to indirect emissions produced by a company’s value chain, including suppliers and consumers. ESG scores assess a company’s environmental, social, and governance performance.

It is reasonable to predict that the voluntary market will face increasing pressure to align with compliance standards. Moreover, to enhance their ESG scores and ensure a comprehensive approach to emissions reduction, companies may be compelled to address their scope three emissions and actively engage in compliant carbon markets. Additionally, governments and regulatory bodies may introduce stricter regulations that require companies to offset scope three emissions, thereby narrowing the distinction between voluntary and compliant markets.

Furthermore, the convergence of voluntary and compliant carbon markets could lead to increased participation and investment in low-carbon projects. As the distinction between the two markets becomes less pronounced, companies may feel more compelled to invest in emission reduction projects, knowing that their efforts will be recognised and rewarded in both the voluntary and compliant markets, which, in turn, could accelerate the development and deployment of clean technologies and renewable energy sources.

However, there are also challenges associated with the convergence of these markets. One potential challenge is ensuring the integrity and credibility of carbon offsets. As the demand for offsets increases, there is a risk of “greenwashing” or the misrepresentation of carbon reduction projects. To address this, robust verification and certification processes will need to be in place to ensure that offsets are genuine and lead to measurable and additional emissions reductions.

Another challenge is the potential cost implications for companies. Compliance with stricter regulations and the inclusion of scope three emissions will increase the financial burden on companies, which could be particularly challenging for small and medium-sized enterprises that may need help to bear the cost of compliance. Governments and regulatory bodies will need to consider these factors and provide support and incentives to ensure that the convergence of voluntary and compliant markets is equitable and sustainable.


In conclusion, voluntary and compliant carbon markets play a crucial role in addressing climate change and reducing GHG emissions. Voluntary markets provide flexibility, promote innovation, and allow companies to offset their emissions beyond regulatory requirements voluntarily. Compliant markets, on the other hand, ensure regulatory compliance, drive significant emissions reductions, and foster collaboration between governments and businesses. However, challenges such as ensuring the integrity of carbon offsets and managing the cost implications for companies will need to be addressed. Ultimately, the future of carbon trading will depend on finding a balance between voluntary participation and regulatory compliance while fostering innovation and investment in low-carbon solutions.

While the voluntary market operates separately from compliance frameworks, the increasing emphasis on scope three emissions and ESG scores may lead to convergence. In the future, the voluntary market may be compelled to align with compliance standards, reinforcing the importance of collective efforts in achieving a sustainable and low-carbon future.

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