This month, South Pole welcomes Naomi Swickard as its new Head of Public Affairs. This is a crucial role that focuses on stewarding South Pole's thought leadership within the climate space and facilitating the sustainability transition. Naomi's 13 year experience at Verra positions her perfectly for managing this process. We caught up with her to learn more about the next big trends in the voluntary carbon market.
You're joining South Pole after 13 years at Verra, the organisation that manages the world's largest carbon standard, the VCS. How important is that standard for the voluntary carbon market and for climate action more broadly?
Standards are the key foundation that markets are built upon. Without the integrity that standards bring to offsets, it's impossible to know that a tonne of emission reductions in one place is equivalent to a tonne of emissions emitted somewhere else. The very integrity of the market depends on standards, and it's standards like the VCS that make sure that the market drives real impact.
You're coming from the "inside" of one of the key standards: what unique perspectives will you be bringing to your work at South Pole?
Being within the standards body has given me an interesting viewpoint. I have been close to developers, verifiers, account holders on the registry system, buyers, policy makers, and part of all sorts of fora on which the future of markets is being debated and developed, so I guess I could say that I have really quite a good understanding of where all of these stakeholders are coming from in terms of the future of carbon markets.
To turn your question around, I am also really excited about now being closer to the implementation side of things through South Pole and about feeding that perspective back into the standards bodies to make sure they're up to date with the reality on the ground and the needs of companies and governments, especially as the market develops over the next three to five years.
Following up on that, how is the market developing? What will we be seeing in the next few years?
The next few years are going to be very interesting as we watch how claims evolve. It's becoming ever more important for companies to be clear and transparent about their targets, goals and carbon-neutrality claims. We're going to see a whole new interaction between claims and other instruments and commitments, including offsets but also insets, supply chain efforts, net zero commitments, and so on. We're witnessing a shift from a fairly unregulated market, where companies can make a lot of different claims, to a market with higher levels of scrutiny where companies need to be clear about what they're saying and what that means. It will be increasingly important for them to understand what it means to establish and operationalise a net zero strategy and how offsets can fit into this. What constitutes an appropriate and credible claim will evolve continually in the next five years or so.
And so, as the space grows and evolves, so too does the "alphabet soup" that accompanies it: a jumble of acronyms like TSVCM, VCMI, SBTi, ICROA, etc. Why do companies need to keep track of these bodies and the guidance they provide?
As I said, a shift is imminent in what a company can legitimately say about its decarbonisation strategies. Companies will need to understand the guidance published by these different groups to make sure their strategy is one of high integrity, as well as to insulate themselves from any accusations of greenwashing. The “alphabet soup", as you call it, can certainly be confusing, but that's exactly the role South Pole can play in helping companies make sense of this so companies can focus as much as possible on high-integrity decarbonisation efforts without needing to hire a whole team to sift through the details .
As companies focus more on defining and implementing high-integrity decarbonisation strategies, what role do governments play?
Governments are taking more and more of a lead on decarbonisation, which becomes a bit of a double-edged sword when this starts to interact with what the private sector is already doing. As governments start to implement more policies, the window of opportunity for offset strategies will contract because fewer and fewer actions will be considered additional to what the government is doing, or purely voluntary. However, aided by a smart market and policy design, the private sector can be a very strong complement to government efforts, helping countries achieve their goals and attracting investment to hard-to-abate sectors.
I would love to see a market where countries design their systems in such a way that supports regulation, with private investment in decarbonisation directed where it's needed most, helping to fill the gaps in regulation. I think this is another key area where South Pole can help. If we can maximise the voluntary market to fill gaps that governments can't, and continue to innovate and direct finance where it is needed most for climate impact – and for all of the Sustainable Development Goals, for that matter – then the voluntary market can be very useful and can help increase ambition.
You actually got your start in the carbon market with South Pole almost 15 years ago. What does it mean for you to put the "penguin suit" back on and return to our Iceberg?
It's going to be a lot of fun! When I worked for South Pole back then it was a very small company and I saw some of the first VCS projects go through. To see how the market and South Pole have grown since then is incredible, especially observing how South Pole has continually reinvented itself as the market has shifted. Now, as we continue to keep ahead of the trends, I look forward to helping South Pole continue to innovate and actively shape the future market.