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Are your carbon offsets really reducing emissions?

Etsy says it will be offsetting 100 per cent of carbon emissions. Image: etsy blog

Many Australian businesses, often driven by shareholder or investor expectations, are setting voluntary emission reduction targets or entering voluntary programs. The Australian Climate Active program is one example.

But meeting these targets isn’t easy. That’s where carbon offsetting comes in.

Carbon offsetting

Carbon offsets are a convenient way for organisations to meet their emissions targets or achieve carbon neutrality. These programs allow them to invest in environmental projects worldwide that balance out their own carbon footprints.

In the simplest terms, it’s like planting a tree every time you drive your car.

Of course, the maths that determines the quantity of offsets needed to balance your carbon footprint is anything but simple.

With problems of additionality, double counting and permanence coming into play, organisations need to do their homework. Simply buying a “certified” carbon offset is not enough. Not all carbon offsets are created equal.

How to find high-quality carbon offsets

No organisation wants to make incorrect low carbon claims, but without digging in and really understanding what makes a high-quality carbon offset, that is exactly what will happen.

It’s not necessarily an easy process – it will require time and resources. But it’s essential. Carbon offsets from questionable projects may lead to an increase in emissions, exactly the result you’re trying to avoid.

So, how do you find high-quality carbon offsets?

Understand the different types of offset units

There are a lot of different types of offset units generated under different standards and methodologies. These are things like ACCUs, CERs, VCUs, RMUs or VERs.

The type of offset you choose will depend on your preferences. Do you want the cheapest option (keeping in mind that cheap is not necessarily synonymous with low-quality)? Do you want a project located in Australia, or do you mind if it’s overseas? Do you have a preference for a certain type of project, like solar or wind?

Determine what characteristics you’re looking for and make sure you’re eligible to buy under that particular program.

Assess the carbon offset units

Once you’ve determined what type of units you’d like to buy, you need to assess them to ensure they’re a good offset. This is where the hard work will come into play. Good offsets should be:

  • Real. There should be an actual offset project already in place.
  • Permanent. This involves ensuring that the emissions won’t be released back into the atmosphere (for example, if a forest is damaged by fire, drought, disease or some other event and so releases captured carbon).
  • Additional. This means that your carbon offsets should not already be required by existing legislation but be in addition to any other requirements.
  • Accurate. That all your offsetting choices can be accurately quantified and supported by evidence.
  • Verified. An independent third party should verify your offsets with best practice standards and methodologies.
  • Registered. Every offset should be unambiguously owned and tracked in a registry.
  • Social and environmental co-benefits. It’s essential that you consider any detrimental or beneficial environmental or social effects from the implementation of your carbon offset project.

Question the claims of developers and sellers

Purchasing carbon offsets can absolutely help to reduce an organisation’s carbon emission, but you need confidence that the carbon offset unit actually meets your needs.

Often that means having confidence in the developers of the carbon offset projects and sellers of the offsets themselves.

When it comes to offset providers, shop around, and do your due diligence. A good provider will be able to help you make the right purchasing decision, advise you on the different types of offsets and back up their eligibility claims with supporting data and documentation.

Takeaway

Ensuring carbon offset quality is key. Developing a robust carbon offset procurement strategy can be challenging and time-consuming, but if your organisation doesn’t ensure the integrity of carbon offset units, an offsetting strategy won’t achieve its objective – reducing emissions.

Organisations may find themselves having to compensate for the use of low-quality carbon offsets, leaving you in a worse position than before you started.

Alex Stathakis is director and founder of Conversio Pty Ltd, a Brisbane-based carbon and energy management consultancy. Previously he worked at EY’s Climate Change and Sustainability Services and he has been an analyst for Low Carbon Australia Ltd. Alex played a key role delivering the Australian Government’s National Carbon Offset Standard Carbon Neutral Program. He has guest-lectured on corporate sustainability, climate change and strategy, and published articles on carbon reporting, climate policy, and adaptation to extreme weather events and climate change. He is an approved verifier under the Airport Carbon Accreditation program in Australia.


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