The Value of Carbon Offsets

By | February 23, 2014

Last fall I was asked to present at a local community college on Carbon Offsets; what they are, how they work, and what would be the benefit of purchasing offsets. Another conversation I had with a family friend, a project manager and engineer for one of those big multinational energy companies, had me again explaining, if not defending, the value of carbon offsets. My friend’s view was that all carbon offsets are a joke, fictitious, and that no offsets are real. Thinking that my friend was desperately ill informed, I did my best to set him straight. From this interaction and from my experience of teaching this topic to students and faculty at the community college, I realized that there is a need and interest for general education on this topic.

Standards that define how to create and verify carbon offsets have been developed through multi-stakeholder international processes. Institutions that register offsets provide project developers a defined framework for carbon offset creation. The necessary principles and characteristics of carbon offsets have been set. Carbon offset projects will be relevant, complete, consistent, accurate, transparent and conservative in the determination of the amounts of offsets that are created during a defined period of time. Offsets are generated from the carefully measured destruction, avoidance or sequestration of greenhouse gases.

Offset projects include a gambit of types, technologies and locations, with new protocols coming online all the time. Recently, the American Carbon Registry has approved a new offset protocol for the Restoration of Degraded Deltaic Wetlands of the Mississippi Delta, where offset credits support the restoration of an important local resource. This project would represent the sequestration of carbon (CO2).

In the diverse panoply of offsets, offset generation from the destruction of landfill gas (LFG) is quite common. LFG is typically around 50% methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. In this type of project regime there cannot be any local legal requirements to collect and destroy landfill gas. Therefore, without the generation of offsets as a financial mechanism, uncontrolled evolution of the polluting landfill gas would continue unabated. This important concept is described as additionality.

All offset projects have to be additional, as the fate of the greenhouse gases involved (destruction, avoidance or sequestration), would not be realized without the mechanism of a carbon market.

Other project types include the controlled destruction of ozone-depleting substances, destruction of methane from controlled livestock waste-management practices and many others. Projects that avoid greenhouse gas emissions may include fuel switching to less greenhouse gas intensive fuels or changing to less fossil fuel intensive agricultural practices. Direct capture and storage (CCS) for the sequestration of CO2 from the atmosphere or from a specific industrial process are still being proven as viable technologies. I see CCS projects as science projects – big ones – but I’m not aware of any protocols approved by any of the major carbon registries for this new set of technologies.

Forest projects are a proven way to successfully sequester carbon and typically run over a long timescale, creating carbon credits every year the project is running. REDD+ is one type of forest project that incorporates the role of conservation with community needs.  The enhancement of forest carbon stocks and the sustainable harvesting of forest products improves local economies and correspondingly, the social fabric of local communities.

Trusted and salable carbon offsets are verified by an independent, expert and accredited third party. This is akin to financial reporting that is also verified by an independent third-party accounting firm. Third-party assurance is critical, as a company won’t invest in any carbon offset that is not demonstrated to be real and permanent. Companies using offsets to hedge a current or future regulatory regime of greenhouse gas management minimize risk in offset purchases of real verified offsets. Verification is built into the process, universally, for all offset generation that have this internationally accepted high level of integrity.

The generation of carbon offsets, using rigorous and accepted methodologies, is a money maker for the project owners, consulting engineers, foresters, and others involved in project creation and verification. The value of carbon offsets “fuels” carbon markets internationally, providing a trusted mechanism for organizations to meet their greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. Carbon offsets enhance local economies, remove greenhouse gases from our environment, and can improve the social fabric of local communities.

It is through the confidence in the carbon markets, in the value of a particular carbon offset, that millions of dollars have traded hands, and millions of tons of greenhouse gases have been diminished from our atmosphere.