An October 2022 report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent and statutory UK body, issued some stark warnings about carbon offsetting: without proper regulation they run the risk of slowing our progress towards net zero and could even cause environmental damage, rather than lessen it.
Apparently, some carbon offsetting programmes are better than others and it can be difficult to tell a good one from a bad one. However, help is at hand. The Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market (ICVCM), which was established in September last year, is expected to publish some global rules about what good carbon offsetting looks like, the Core Carbon Principles, any day.
Offsetting or buying carbon credits is a way of getting to net zero without actually cutting carbon emissions from, say, a road building project. The idea is that you do as much as you can, for instance by using warm mix, using a high proportion of recycled asphalt and switching from diesel to biofuels, with the remaining emissions paid off with the purchase of credits.
The most common forms of carbon credit are reforestation or renewable energy projects. Other types of carbon credit include carbon capture and storage, peatland restoration or afforestation – the creation of new forest. This is big business. The voluntary carbon market is growing fast, quadrupling between 2020 and 2022 to almost $2bn.
What makes a high-quality carbon offset? According to the Offset Guide, an initiative between the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute and the Stockholm Environment Institute, a high-quality carbon offset credit must leave the world at least as well off as if an organisation had actually cut the carbon from the process or project. The emission reductions being purchased must be permanent and not something that would have happened anyway. And they should come from activities that don’t contribute to social or environmental damage.
This is largely the gist of the awaited ICVCM principles, a proposed version of which has been published for consultation. Once these are available, the next step will be for the ICVCM to assess carbon crediting programmes for compliance and certify them accordingly.
One carbon crediting programme which has welcomed the ICVCM moves is the Gold Standard Foundation, which was established in 2003 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other non-governmental organisations. The Gold Standard Foundation aims to go beyond reducing carbon emissions with its projects by creating extra value in terms of climate action and sustainable development goals. It’s probably a safe one to look at while we await the ICVCM scheme.
In summary, all carbon credits are not equal. And just as we should source building materials responsibly, so we should source carbon credits in the same way. Clients should be able to ask for evidence of how many carbon credits make up a ‘net zero’ asset, and where those credits have come from.
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