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Ethical offsetting in the journey to a zero-carbon world

Ethical offsetting in the journey to a zero-carbon world

The ethics of carbon offsetting have become among the most contentious of any climate action strategy. Critics argue that the option to offset perpetuates unsustainable lifestyles and -facilitates greenwashing, giving carbon buyers a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to tackling their emissions; proponents argue that it can be used responsibly alongside reductions to reach net-zero.

Net zero, carbon neutral and other climate commitments are increasingly being made by businesses and governments. Achieving climate neutrality through emissions reductions alone is the ideal, yet at the same time challenging, if not impossible, without greater headway made towards a low-carbon global economy.  If net-zero targets are to be met, offsetting is, at least in the short term, essential.

Recent market data show that offsetting continues to grow. Voluntary offset sellers have reported sustained interest despite the Coronavirus pandemic, suggesting sustained commitments to sustainability strategies despite financial uncertainty. If the voluntary offset market is here to stay, then ethical standards must upheld not only within the projects themselves and the standard to which they are accredited, but in the way that carbon offsets are used by buyers.

The carbon market has been criticised on policy, scientific and moral grounds; the latter of which is often leveraged at buyers of carbon credits for using offsetting as an excuse to delay systematic change. Yet experiences of carbon credit providers – projects and resellers – in a ‘boutique’ segment of the voluntary carbon market is very different, instead finding that carbon buyers are overwhelmingly genuine in their commitments to sustainability, using offsets as only one part of their journey to net zero and engaging meaningfully with the moral dilemmas of choosing to buy offsets.

A research team from Edinburgh Napier University and ACES, the project coordinators for two Kenyan blue carbon projects, interviewed a range of stakeholders in the voluntary carbon market including carbon buyers, project developers, carbon standards and resellers of carbon credits, to explore how buyers use offsets alongside broader, long-term carbon reduction strategies. It was recognised that the views captured in the research are not necessarily representative of practices in the wider carbon market and the findings were not intended as such; rather, they were presented as an example of good practice in offsetting with lessons to be learned by project developers, carbon sellers and carbon standards.

Sincerity of buyers

The ‘permit to pollute’ criticism that offsetting simply perpetuates unsustainable lifestyles is often framed in the context of superfluous flights taken by people unwilling to change their lifestyle, or businesses that see offsets as a cheap way out of making changes to reduce their emissions. There was no evidence of this hazard among stakeholders interviewed; some even expressed guilt for activities such as driving to choir and said that being able to offset these emissions assuaged at least some of this guilt, particularly when the project that they chose to offset with delivered ‘charitable’ co-benefits such as community development or biodiversity enhancement.

Businesses need guidance

Our research found that carbon buyers took step to carry out their own due diligence on projects beyond accepting their certification at face-value. This included having conversations with offset sellers and even visiting projects personally. They did not, in general, appear to be looking for a certificate of offsetting as a CSR ‘badge’ or to tick a box – they were motivated to find high-quality offsets from projects that aligned with their interests and values. However, this due diligence took time, resources and a capability that cannot be expected of all buyers, particularly as the voluntary carbon market is fragmented between standards and projects with independently run, and variable, websites and communications. There is therefore a role for both sellers and third-party organisations to give buyers the clear and transparent information and guidance that they need to make informed decisions. An early example of this is the Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting, which gives guidance on offsetting principles, and an upcoming platform by WWF to assess and evaluate carbon standards.

Onus on sellers

Finally, our research concluded that there is an onus on sellers of carbon offsets to ensure ethical practices are adhered to. Sellers can work with buyers to educate them on best practice in carbon reductions and net-zero strategies and to ensure that the offsets sold are being applied in an ethical manner and communicated accurately to reflect their role in the organisation’s net zero strategy.

Our research suggests that contrary to narratives presented by critics of offsetting, ‘ethical offsetting’ is practiced in at least parts of the voluntary carbon market and the principles from these examples can be applied throughout the market to ensure best practice. Our full research paper can be read here (written in 2021; unpublished).

Scaling community-led conservation to national climate action

Scaling community-led conservation to national climate action

Our Mikoko Pamoja and Vanga Blue Forest projects have delivered climate, biodiversity and community benefits to two coastal communities on the Kenyan coast. They have demonstrated at a small, ’boutique’ scale how climate action can not only tackle the threat of the climate emergency, but how it can do so whilst delivering benefits to local people, engaging local people in environmental governance and demonstrating how local livelihoods can be secured whilst managing the use of natural resources.

Whilst these projects deliver community benefits locally and make a contribution to fighting the climate crisis, much larger-scale action is needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5-2°C in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

This is where Nationally-Determined Contributions, or NDCs, come in. They are commitments made every 5 years by nations who are signatory to the Paris Agreement to contribute to the global effort to limit temperature rise. In the case of blue carbon ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass and saltmarsh, these can include commitments to protect and restore these carbon-rich habitats to prevent the loss of, and encourage further sequestration of, atmospheric carbon.

But when we scale blue carbon conservation like this, how do we ensure that community livelihoods are not overlooked in favour of carbon benefit? It is easy to make commitments on paper to halt the loss of these ecosystems, but how can we implement this in a way that involves local people and takes account of their needs, particularly when coastal communities rely on natural resources like timber for income and sustenance?

Our team have been part of an international research team investigating these questions and making recommendations for Kenya, and other nations, to commit to and implement socially-just blue carbon conservation and restoration.

As part of this work, we worked alongside the team developing Kenya’s 2020 NDC submission to ensure that blue carbon ecosystems were not only included in the submission, but included in a way which puts the needs of coastal communities at the heart of their management. More detail about how we achieved this can be found here. Now that Kenya’s 2020 NDC submission is finalised, we have produced a policy brief for Kenyan coastal and marine stakeholders with an interest in blue carbon management, summarising the blue carbon element of the NDC submission and what this will mean for government agencies, public bodies, NGOs and other stakeholders. This policy brief can be downloaded here.

National-level conservation and restoration of blue carbon ecosystems will not come without challenges. However by learning from projects such as Mikoko Pamoja, Vanga Blue Forest and other community-led initiatives, and by working together across government, community groups, research institutions and NGOs to understand and promote best practice, we can move towards a more sustainable future in which the needs of people are secured alongside ambitious climate action.

It Takes a Village: ACES and University of Malaya webinar on community-led blue carbon conservation

We’re often asked how the Mikoko Pamoja and Vanga Blue Forest projects were set up, and what the key is to their success. We were therefore delighted this month to partner with the University of Malaya in Malaysia to lead a webinar on the value of blue carbon to communities and the global climate, and how community groups can protect mangrove and other blue carbon ecosystems for the benefit of the climate, the environment and local people.