Purchased Carbon Offsets Institutional Information and Options for Departments

What is a Carbon Offset?

In instances when an individual or organization cannot avoid generating carbon emissions in one area, they can seek to neutralize, or "offset," the damage by actively reducing carbon output in another. When it is not possible for a person or institution to create offsets directly, they may find impact by providing financial support for carbon reduction projects executed by a third party ("purchased carbon offsets"). For example, if an institution must rely on a fossil-fuel based electricity grid, they might seek to balance this output by purchasing an offset from an organization that will use this money to fund a renewable energy project elsewhere, which will help reduce total global carbon emissions. This purchase allows the buyer to deduct the carbon emissions mitigated through the offset project from its own total greenhouse gas emissions. In the best-case scenarios, purchased offsets allow an organization (or individual) with the desire to help reduce global emissions, but without a viable path to do so directly, to facilitate the direct emissions reduction work of another organization. The purchaser enables good projects with carbon reduction outcomes.

What are challenges and drawbacks of purchasing offsets as a carbon reduction strategy?

The problems with carbon offsets are three-fold. First, carbon offsetting may inhibit making the investments in changes to operations that are necessary to reach carbon neutrality goals. Why? Because investments in carbon offsets can create the appearance that the carbon footprint of the organization has been reduced when, in fact, the organization has not improved its direct emissions. For example, a recent study of 11 institutions of higher-education claiming to have already reached carbon neutrality revealed that three of them had actually increased their direct emissions (Barron et al. 2021).

The second problem with carbon offsetting stems from the lack of regulation and standardization in the market for carbon offsets, which has allowed the proliferation of offsets available for purchase that have little or no actual carbon sequestration value. Among the many concerns raised by investigators are the following: (1) that the carbon offset project is not really additional (e.g., carbon offsets issued for putting a forest under conservation easement when the forest was already a preserve); (2) overestimations of the carbon sequestration potential for a project, particularly as the carbon sequestration value of forestry, agriculture, and land use can be very difficult to calculate; (3) overestimations of claims that carbon has been permanently sequestered (e.g., forests frequently burn, which releases previously sequestered carbon); and (4) multiple parties claiming credit for the same carbon offsets.

The third problem with carbon offsetting is the often-overlooked issue of the social and environmental harms that may be associated with their purchase. For instance, some hydropower projects displace local communities and harm biodiversity. Moreover, as Barron, Strong, and Metz (2021) argue, "Offsets can leave vulnerable communities exposed to air pollution by allowing local sources of pollution to continue to emit while paying for greenhouse gas reductions that may be on the other side of the planet."

What is W&L's Position on Purchased Offsets?

W&L's carbon reduction strategy emphasizes action to reduce campus emissions directly through changes in campus practices, operations, and infrastructure. The goal is to ensure our campus management is as thoughtful and sustainable as possible, and our emissions as low as they can be, due to intentional institutional practices. Carbon offsets should not be purchased instead of making direct changes to reduce campus GHG emissions.

When is it appropriate to consider purchasing an offset?

While direct action remains our institutional priority, there are circumstances in which direct campus emissions cannot be reduced further, or cannot be reduced yet (e.g. transportation emission where travel is unavoidable and carbon free transport is not an option). In these cases, the purchase of a carbon offset can facilitate positive environmental action to offset the unavoidable negative impact of necessary operations.
The University considers the purchase of carbon offsets appropriate in two circumstances:

  • When it is not possible to reduce emissions further through direct action. For example, university sponsored travel has a significant carbon footprint. While university departments should be accountable for ensuring their sponsored travel is essential and efficient, it is not currently possible to guarantee it is emissions-free. In this case, creating an offset for transportation emissions that cannot be eliminated is consistent with university strategy.
  • As an interim step while a plan for direct impact is developed. For example, evolving into a campus that runs primarily on renewable energy is a future possibility, but will require state legislative changes, technology advancements, and significant infrastructure and financial planning that will take time to realize. Offsetting emissions during the time required to actively work toward the transition is appropriate.

Is W&L currently purchasing offsets at an institutional level?

No. Direct carbon reduction efforts are the current institutional priority. W&L performs an annual greenhouse gas inventory and is continuously expanding data collection and carbon mitigation efforts. Purchased offsets are a part of the long-term university strategy, to be pursued when sufficient Scope 3 data is verified to make an institutional offset purchase that is targeted, meaningful, and ensured to produce a verifiable, positive, and significant impact.

How can I take independent action and purchase an offset to address emissions specifically for my department's operations?

While no department or program should feel obliged to pursue purchased offsets independent of the broad campus carbon reduction efforts, the university will support departments and programs that decide to do so.

As noted in many recent examples reported in the media, there are risks associated with purchasing offsets. Many purchased offsets have been found to have no real carbon reduction impact, and worse, some projects supported through offset sales have actually created serious problems for the communities in which they were implemented. To help ensure offsets purchased with university funds have the intended positive impact, departments and programs wishing to pursue a carbon offset purchase directly should follow the steps outlined below. Purchases made outside of this process may not qualify as reimbursable expenses.

  1. Contact the Office of Sustainability and Energy Education (OSEE) at OSEE@wlu.edu about your plans.
  2. OSEE will work with you to:
    • Review the direct emissions impact of your department's operations and identify direct reduction strategies to implement before purchasing an offset.
    • Identify the number of carbon offsets needed to meet your goals.
    • Select an appropriate offset project/partner. Note, purchases will only be considered reimbursable expenses if the offsets:
      1. Have been verified through credible registries, including: CAR - Climate Action Reserve; CCBA - The Climate, Community & Biodiversity Alliance; GS - Gold Standard; VCS - Verified Carbon Standard; Plan Vivo System. Or,
      2. Are offered through a local organization for projects that can be readily evaluated and are measured and tracked through a transparent and independent verification process with corresponding documentation. Offsets secured through the Boxerwood Educational Center's COREWorks program generally meet this standard.
  3. Provide a copy of the offset documentation/certification to the Office of Sustainability and Energy Education.

Have questions about this process or the rationale behind it? Looking to brainstorm before getting too far down the path? Contact director of sustainability Jane Stewart.