Carbon offsets are a widely-used tool in greenhouse gas mitigation efforts. Companies, governments, and other entities can compensate for their emissions by funding equivalent emission reduction efforts elsewhere. In theory, this allows for climate-conscious groups to make up for their hard-to-abate emissions and strive for carbon neutrality. In practice, there is much debate about the integrity of carbon offsets.
Carbon offset verifiers work to ensure integrity by certifying that offsets are as real and permanent as possible. FES alumna Christie Pollet-Young works for SCS Global Services, which provides third-party environmental certification across different sectors around the world. On October 21, she came to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies to speak about carbon offsets and the role that verification plays in establishing reliable and effective carbon emissions reductions.
Companies are using offsets for a range of benefits, from increased employee recruitment and consumer demand for environmentally conscious business practices to improved public relations and risk management. Offset project types span a range of sectors, including forest and land use, industry, energy, agriculture, and transportation. Offsets provide a number of real benefits, including paying for ecosystem services that are not typically valued. A common offset project, for example, is avoided forest conversion or reforestation of cleared land.
Pollet-Young acknowledged that there have been problems with offsets in the past and explained how she and her colleagues work to improve them. SCS Global Services works on the ground in places where offset projects are being established to assess the project sites, evaluate methodologies, and review financial and legal feasibilities and methods of carbon quantification. A major part of verification is working with local communities to establish trust and confirm that the project is a good fit for the community. After verifying the sites, SCS Global Services can issue credits.
Verification establishes quality assurance and integrity through oversight. Verifiers work to ensure that carbon offsets are real, additional, permanent, and verifiable. Would the emission reduction have occurred without the offset (making the offset “additional”)? Is there double counting? These factors impact whether an offset will make a lasting difference. The importance of having trustworthy verifiers is evident: differences in experience, expertise, reputation, and integrity of the verifiers themselves will impact the reliability of a carbon offset.
The carbon offset process can continue to improve. A major concern is the co-pollutants associated with carbon-emitting sources. While a company may buy offsets elsewhere to compensate for the carbon emitted by their operations, local air pollution continues to be released, causing harm to communities. Finding solutions for reducing air pollution is a critical next step in carbon offset management. In addition, Pollet-Young stressed the importance of local acceptance in the areas where offset projects are being proposed. Improving local input and ensuring a public comment period will improve the efficacy of carbon offset projects.