IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change Voluntary agreements

Voluntary agreements are agreements between a government authority and one or more private parties to achieve environmental objectives or to improve environmental performance beyond compliance to regulated obligations. Voluntary agreements are playing an increasingly important role in many countries as a means to achieve environmental and social objectives. They tend to be popular with those directly affected and can be used when other instruments face strong political opposition (Thalmann and Baranzini, 2005). Box 13.5 provides examples of VAs. See Chapter 7, Section 7.9.2 for additional information.

Voluntary agreements can take on many forms with varying levels of stringency. While all VAs are ‘voluntary’ insofar as firms are not compelled to join, some may involve incentives (rewards or penalties) for participation. Firms may agree to direct emissions reductions or to indirect reductions through changes in product design (see Chapter 6, Section Agreements may be stand-alone, but they are often used in conjunction with other policy instruments. Voluntary agreements are also a subset of a larger set of ‘voluntary approaches’ in which industry may first negotiate standards of behaviour with other firms or private groups and then allow third parties to monitor compliance. This larger set also includes unilateral voluntary actions by industry. See Section 13.4, Box 13.5, and Chapter 7, Section 7.9.2 for more information on voluntary actions.

The benefits of VAs for individual companies and for society may be significant. Firms may enjoy lower legal costs, enhance their reputation and improve their relationships with society on a whole and shareholders in particular. Societies gain to the extent that firms translate goals into concrete business practices and persuade other firms to follow their example. The negotiations involved to develop VAs raise awareness of climate change issues and potential mitigative actions within industry (Kågeström et al., 2000), establish a dialogue between industry and government and help shift industries towards best practices.

Evaluating the effectiveness of VAs is not easy. The standard approach is first to measure the environmental performance of a group of firms participating in a VA and then to compare the performance to that of a typical non-participating firm or firms. One problem with this approach is selection bias: it is often the best-performing firms that enter into a VA. A second and related problem is the counterfactual: it is difficult to know what a firm might have done had they not entered into the VA. Very few studies have attempted to evaluate VAs by taking into account both of these issues. Studies which do not take these factors into account can produce an overly optimistic view of the performance of a VA.

The environmental effectiveness of VAs is the subject of much discussion. Some governments – as well as industry – believe that VAs are effective in reducing GHG emissions (IAI, 2002; OECD, 2003c). Rietbergen et al. (2002) investigated whether the voluntary agreements in The Netherlands have resulted in improvements in energy efficiency beyond what would have occurred in the absence of such agreements. They estimate that, on average, between 25% and 50% of the energy savings in the Dutch manufacturing industry can be attributed to the policy mix of the agreements and supporting measures.

Others are more sceptical about the efficacy of VAs in reducing emissions. Independent assessments of VAs – while acknowledging that investments in cleaner technologies have resulted in absolute emission improvements – indicate that there is little improvement over business-as-usual (BAU) scenarios, as these investments would have probably happened anyway (Harrison, 1999; King and Lenox, 2000; Rietbergen and Blok, 2000; OECD, 2003e; Rivera and deLeon, 2004). The economic efficiency of VAs can also be low, as they seldom incorporate mechanisms to equalize marginal abatement costs between different emitters (Braathen, 2005).

There are a limited, although increasing, number of comprehensive reviews of the effectiveness of VAs, but any comparison of these reviews and assessments is difficult because of the different metrics and evaluative criteria employed (Price, 2005). In general, studies of the design and efficacy of VAs assess only a single programme (e.g. Arora and Cason, 1996; Khanna and Damon, 1999; King and Lenox, 2000; Welch et al., 2000; Rivera, 2002; Croci, 2005). Based on her evaluation of the French experience, Chidiak (2002) suggests that the reductions in GHG emissions cannot necessarily be seen as a direct consequence of the commitments within the agreements and argues that, in actual fact, these improvements have been triggered largely as a result of other environmental regulations and cost reduction efforts. Johannsen (2002) and Helby (2002) present similar results for programmes in Denmark and Sweden, respectively. They note that reductions in specific emissions correspond with industry’s BAU behaviour, thereby suggesting that the stated objectives in the agreements were not sufficiently ambitious. In particular, Helby concludes that EKO-Energi, which sought to highlight a new level of best practice and thus pose a challenge to other firms, was ‘at best a very modest success,’ resulting in a small overall direct effect on total industrial energy consumption. Interestingly, Chidiak also finds that the agreements did not foster intra-industry networking and information exchange on energy management and suggests that their failure to achieve more ambitious goals is a result of the lack of a well-articulated policy-mix. Other analyses indicate that VAs work best as part of a policy package, rather than as a stand-alone instrument (Krarup and Ramesohl, 2002; Torvanger and Skodvin, 2002). OECD (2003e) and Braathen (2005) note that many of the current VAs would perform better if there were a real threat of other instruments being used if targets are not met.

The US Government Accountability Office (2006), in its review of the US Climate Vision and Leaders Programmes, which are supported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DOE), finds that emission reduction goals were set for only 38 of 74 participants, that some goals are intensity-based and others emission-based and that programmes vary in terms of how they are measured, the time periods covered, the requirements for reporting and the means of tracking progress. Brouhle et al. (2005) note that the difficulties in evaluating US programmes is associated to the many different programmes and their goals that need be sorted, the availability of adequate data and the measuring of achievement relative to a baseline. Jaccard et al. (2006) review various Canadian voluntary programmes that have been in existence for 15 years and report that during that period emissions have grown by 25%.

Darnall and Carmin (2003) review 61 governmental, industry and third-party general environmental agreements, mainly in the USA (see also Lyon and Maxwell, 2000). Overall, their results demonstrate that the voluntary programmes had low programme rigour in that they had limited levels of administrative, environmental and performance requirements. For example, two thirds did not require participants to create environmental targets and to demonstrate that the targets were met. Similarly, almost 50% of the programmes had no monitoring requirements. Compared to government programmes, industry programmes had stronger administrative requirements and third party programmes had yet even slightly stronger requirements. According to Hanks (2002) and OECD (2003e), the best VAs include: a clear goal and baseline scenario; third party participation in the design of the agreement; a description of the parties and their obligations; a defined relationship within the legal and regulatory framework; formal provisions for monitoring, reporting and independent verification of results at the plant level; a clear statement of the responsibilities expected to be self-financed by industry; commitments in terms of individual companies, rather than as sectoral commitments; references to sanctions or incentives in the case of non-compliance.

It must be acknowledged that VAs fit into the cultural traditions of some countries better than others. Japan, for example, has a history of co-operation between government and industry that facilitates the operation of “voluntary” programmes. Some examples of VAs in various countries are provided in Box 13.5.

Box 13.5 Examples of national voluntary agreements

  • The Netherlands Voluntary Agreement on Energy Efficiency: A series of legally binding long-term agreements based on annual improvement targets and benchmarking covenants between 30 industrial sectors and the government with the objective to improve energy efficiency.
  • Australia “Greenhouse Challenge Plus” programme: An agreement between the government and an enterprise/industry association to reduce GHG emissions, accelerate the uptake of energy efficiency, integrate GHG issues into business decision making and provide consistent reporting.[19] See http://www.greenhouse.gov.au/challenge.
  • European Automobile Agreement: An agreement between the European Commission and European, Korean and Japanese car manufacturing associations to reduce average emissions from new cars to 140 gCO2/km by 2008–2009. See http://ec.europa.eu/environment/CO2/CO2_agreements.htm.
  • Canadian Automobile Agreement: An agreement between the Canadian government and representatives of the domestic automobile industry to a reduce emissions from cars and light-duty trucks by 5.3 MtCO2-eq by 2010. The agreement also contains provisions relating to research and development and interim reduction goals.
  • Climate Leaders: An agreement between US companies and the government to develop GHG inventories, set corporate emission reduction targets and report emissions annually to the US EPA. See: http://www.epa.gov/climateleaders/.
  • Keidaren Voluntary Action Plan: An agreement between the Japanese government and 34 industrial and energy-converting sectors to reduce GHG emissions. A third party evaluation committee reviews the results annually and makes recommendations for adjustments.[20] See http://www.keidanren.or.jp