How to Shop for Carbon Offsets

Presidents Climate Commitment releases protocol on offsets at conference on sustainability in higher ed, where assessment and measurement are, not surprisingly, big buzzwords.
November 11, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Now that nearly 600 college presidents have committed to moving their campuses toward “carbon neutrality,” and many of their institutions have completed inventories of their current greenhouse gas emissions, what must universities consider in making an abstraction a reality?

Variations of that question are surfacing at the second and, with more than 1,700 registrants, largest Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference, where several sessions Monday focused on assessing a broad range of sustainability efforts and, as far as the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment is concerned, moving toward that far-off objective of zero net greenhouse gas emissions.

As of right now, “There are a handful of campuses that have actually reduced their net emissions,” said Praween Dayananda, a campus field coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation’s Campus Ecology Program, during a session on implementing the presidents' climate commitment. Most colleges have adopted what he called a “random project portfolio approach” -- biodiesel-fueled buses here, the planting of several acres of trees there -- that have not in sum led to systematic reductions.

“At this point, at this time in history, we need to see our emissions going down to zero in a time frame that’s relevant to universities, but also to society,” Dayananda said.

Under the Presidents Climate Commitment, colleges set their own time frames for reaching a climate-neutral state. In the short term, given current constraints like fossil fuel-based electricity grids and inefficient older buildings, a college looking to quite quickly cut net emissions to zero would probably have to rely in part on the controversial and confusing process of purchasing carbon offsets, according to new, 73-page guidelines released by the Presidents Climate Commitment at the conference Monday.

The authors of the guidelines are sensitive to the criticism that offsets allow wealthy institutions to “buy their way out” of their sins by purchasing credits for emissions reduced elsewhere but not through their own activities. The guidelines emphasize that colleges should focus on reductions within their own organizations first, while “investments in offsets can be made as soon as these activities are initiated” (in other words, the two steps can happen simultaneously, so long as internal reductions are first pursued and prioritized).

The degree to which signatory colleges choose to rely on purchasing offsets to realize their climate neutrality goals won't be clear until the charter signatories publicly post their climate action plans, including their target time frames, in fall 2009.

“One of the obvious concerns and objections to offsets, especially in their initial burst of visibility, was that it was like paying an indulgence. That is, institutions were simply writing a check to some distant entity and they had no oversight of or confidence in what was being done with those checks that were arriving,” said David Shi, president of Furman University, in South Carolina, and also a member of the working group that drafted the protocol. “A thread running through this document is the desire or advice, if you will, to institutions as they consider offset options to do so with the curricular and co-curricular goals in mind and to choose activities that will enable them to have teaching moments.

“More colleges are looking locally for opportunities rather than writing checks to that unknown entity.”

The guidelines are intended to help colleges navigate the “relatively new, unregulated, and often confusing” voluntary carbon offset markets, and to offer a set of 10 principles characterizing high-quality offsets. Among them are that offset projects should result in actual reductions of emissions that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise, and that they be measurable, transparent, permanent and verified by an independent third-party auditor. They should account for leakage, or unintended impacts (for instance, preservation of one forest could lead to clear-cutting elsewhere), and, as far as the carbon offsets market is concerned, offsets should be registered and retired from the market when purchased, to prevent another organization from “double counting” that same offset toward its carbon reduction efforts.

The guidelines state that offset projects should be synchronous, or result in reductions “that take place during a distinct period of time that is reasonably close to the period of time during which the GHG emissions that are being offset took place.”

Significantly, the protocol stipulates that universities should only purchase offsets involving absolute reductions of emissions as opposed to the avoidance of future emissions. “For example, fuel-switching projects that replace oil-fired boilers with biomass result in a reduction of existing emissions. Building a wind farm, rather than a planned coal plant, in order to meet new demand and avoid expected future growth of emissions would not be a valid source of offsets under the Protocol.”

To flesh all this out, the guidelines include contextual details on such topics as reporting and accounting frameworks, carbon credit rating systems, and emerging regulatory systems. On the latter issue, the document references a few emerging local, state and regional-level regulatory systems, and very briefly summarizes, for instance, the January request by 10 state attorneys general that the Federal Trade Commission develop a set of standards for businesses selling offset credits. The FTC has been collecting comments and holding public meetings. The report states that there's a "broad expectation that a national regulatory system for GHG emissions will likely take form soon after the appointment of the next presidential administration." The authors said they hope the protocol will influence public policy discussions.

Also at AASHE -- Assessment

In addition to conducting inventories of their greenhouse gas emissions, many colleges have been conducting more general sustainability audits, a process described in depth at a session on “Assessing Sustainability” Monday afternoon. Several speakers described using the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System, a common self-reporting framework being piloted by about 90 institutions that offers the promise of comparisons across institutions over time.

Others described institution-specific efforts. Beau Mitchell, sustainability coordinator for the College of the Menominee Nation, in Wisconsin, described combing through other colleges’ sustainability audits to identify 108 indicators applicable to tribal colleges. Given the high value many Native American tribes place on the land, he described incorporating cultural indicators, quantifying how many students speak a native language or attend ceremonies, for instance, and gaining qualitative data through interviews. "What did your elders tell you about the woods; what did your elders tell you about the water?"

Meanwhile Dina El-Mogazi, of Bucknell University, outlined the institution’s “maximalist” or "integrated" approach, akin to “casting a lot of seeds into the meadow and seeing what grows.”

At Bucknell, 10 teams focusing on 10 areas (such as purchasing, built environment, administration and policy, energy, and education and research) considered, in total, 88 pages of open-ended questions. Since the project started in fall 2007, more than 70 faculty, students, staff and interested community members have been involved, and the effort has spawned about 20 student projects, both large and small.

“I also think of it as a messy approach to campus sustainability. It was very open-ended,” said El-Mogazi, who hopes to compile a report by January.

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