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The higher education sector needs high integrity carbon offsetting – it starts by asking the right questions

  • 8 February 2021
  • By Piers Forster & Eli Mitchell-Larson

This blog was kindly contributed by Piers M Forster, University of Leeds and Eli Mitchell-Larson, University of Oxford. This blog builds on a COP26 UK University Network Briefing: How can carbon offsetting help UK further and higher education institutions achieve net zero emissions? The Briefing was authored by a mix of eleven researchers and sustainability managers representing seven higher education institutions in the UK. It will form the basis of EAUC discussions on the role of offsetting across the sector. You can find Piers on Twitter @piersforster.

The UK can credibly say that it is near the front in the international effort to tackle climate change. Over the last 30 years, a quiet revolution has taken place, as evidenced by a 40 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels and culminating in the first legislated, statutory net zero emissions commitment of any major economy. The UK higher education sector has major roles to play by training a new generation of climate-aware citizens and delivering the technological, environmental and policy solutions needed to effect change. But, as powerfully explained in Professor Keri Facer’s HEPI debate paper, published in December, our sector also needs to radically change before we can confidently claim moral leadership in the response to the climate crisis.

One key decision our institutions struggle with is the appropriate role, if any, of carbon offsetting. The good news is that we are not alone: businesses around the world are grappling with the same problem and stories abound of their dramatic failures and exciting successes to find credible offsets. Nations too are struggling and discussion of how to account for offsets is one of the major stumbling blocks in international climate negotiations. To better prepare our institutions for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 26th Conference of the Parties meeting in Glasgow this November (COP26), the UK academic community established an inclusive COP26 University Network through which researchers are publishing a series of briefing notes. Our latest brief turns the lens back on us, asking what is the role of carbon offsetting in the UK higher education sector.

Why are we talking about offsetting? Many of our higher education institutions have already responded to the climate challenge by declaring climate emergencies and setting ambitious ‘net zero’ emission target dates, some as soon as 2030. Setting ambitious targets is one thing, delivering on them is another matter. The UK’s net-zero 2050 emissions target is quite a deliberate choice.

First of all, is it hard to decarbonize the UK any faster, at least without major economic costs and social upheaval. Secondly, aware that decarbonising sectors like agriculture, aviation and parts of heavy industry by 2050 will likely be very hard, or even nearly impossible, future plans rely on additional carbon removal to balance any remaining carbon sources. Hence, planning for ‘net-zero’ means creating a future in which some form of transactable carbon credit facilitates a balancing (offsetting) of remaining emission sources with suitable carbon sinks. Rewinding to 2020, the offsets available to us today come in the form of  the voluntary carbon offset market, where a plethora of offsetting options exist of varying standards.

Recognising that offsetting is part and parcel of delivering on a proximate net zero date, the following questions need consideration.

  1. What are you trying to achieve by using offsets?
  2. Do you need to offset?
  3. Which emissions are you offsetting?
  4. What offsets will you use to offset those emissions?

Most of the debate jumps straight to question four, without properly considering the earlier questions.

What are you trying to achieve by using offsets? You may be trying set the earliest net zero date in your institutional peer group and claim victory as cheaply as possible. You may be using offsets to counteract unavoidable emissions from your university’s pig farm. You might want to use offsets to tackle the biodiversity crisis or support indigenous livelihoods by protecting tropical rainforests, laudable goals that intersect with but are ultimately distinct from the climate crisis. Your institution’s answer is likely some combination of these and other motivations. However, we argue, it should rather be none of the above.

In the context of the climate crisis, the primary reason for offsetting ought to be whether doing so helps the world achieve net zero emissions and halt global warming.

In the context of the climate crisis, the primary rationale for offsetting ought to be whether doing so helps the world achieve net zero emissions and halt global warming. For this reason – and because offsets by definition take the place of direct emission reductions – the offsets you select must meet a very high quality standard, one which few available offsets currently meet.

Establishing this single guiding principle frames how all the other questions are answered. Do you need to offset those emissions from that pig farm, or can you develop pioneering pig husbandry practices to reduce its emissions? You may instead need to offset the emissions for a few years before technology catches up, necessitating a mechanism to continuously re-evaluate your offsetting decisions. Will you offset emissions from your students’ flights to attend their studies, which dwarf on-campus emissions, and if not, whose responsibility are they?

With intentions stated, plans for absolute emission reductions maxed and a subset of ‘hard-to-abate’ emissions identified, it comes time to select which offsets to purchase. The diversity of choice can be intimidating and in the brief we provide both specific guidelines to consider and a call to transition your offsetting portfolio toward more permanent removals over time. But again, a commitment to ensuring that real climate benefits are achieved simplifies the choice considerably. Blindly trusting offsets that have a certifier’s stamp of approval is not an option. Indeed, some of the best projects, whether local peatland restoration or ultra-permanent mineralisation, may not even be available on formal offsetting registries. Last week Microsoft revealed the largest procurement of high-quality carbon removal offsets to-date through a transparent and scientifically-vetted process. Their purchase included offsets from reforestation, soil carbon sequestration, and direct air capture with permanent storage,  proving that high-integrity options already exist that cover a range of both nature-based and engineered approaches.

Project-level offset evaluation may seem out of reach to individual institutions as we struggle to recover from the pandemic and balance priorities. But our collective footprint as a sector (we estimate 11 million metric tonnes of CO2, or million tonnes of CO2 equivalents (MtCO2e), per year) isn’t far off from that of a multinational tech giant (Microsoft emits 16 MtCO2 per year). The higher education sector in the UK, and worldwide, has an exciting opportunity to club together and develop its own procurement program for high quality offsets, leveraging our own institutions’ scientific expertise and enshrining opportunities for learning and societal contribution. By monitoring and transparently reporting both our emissions and our offsetting choices, we can lead the way in both decarbonising our own sector and supporting the global race to net zero.

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