Tag: The 3 Ps

Ocean Bottle: Supporting blue carbon beyond offsetting

Ocean Bottle: Supporting blue carbon beyond offsetting

This blog was written in collaboration with Ocean Bottle, who have supported ACES’ projects for several years as part of their commitment to improving the health of the ocean and our planet. This blog was written as part of our ‘financing blue carbon ethically, responsibly and effectively’ series and explores different approaches to compensating for corporate carbon footprints and supporting marine conservation.

Ocean Bottle have supported ACES’ mangrove and seagrass projects for several years as part of their commitment to making the ocean, and our world, a better place. Ocean Bottle’s approach to sustainability goes beyond carbon calculations and ‘net zero’; that equating carbon emissions to offset purchases is inadequate. In line with this ethos, they are moving beyond carbon offsetting to a holistic approach to carbon reductions and developing carbon sinks by protecting natural ecosystems such as mangrove forests and seagrass meadows. This blog, written in collaboration with Ocean Bottle, explains the reasoning behind their strategy for emissions reductions and compensating for their unavoidable emissions. Ocean Bottle’s reasons for moving away from offsets include ethical, political and technical challenges to offsetting as a concept and the current offsetting landscape; this reasoning is described well in this document. Here, we focus on the political ethics of carbon offsetting, which raises important questions regarding how the offsetting landscape can be improved in order to incentivise systemic change.

The perspectives presented here are Ocean Bottle’s; however, as ACES, we welcome debate around carbon offsetting and support Ocean Bottle in their emissions reduction strategy. We are pleased to be able to continue working with Ocean Bottle on the development of blue carbon conservation and restoration activities in a way that goes beyond carbon credits.

Emissions reduction strategy

Ocean Bottle’s Emissions Reductions strategy follows three pillars: first by implementing emission reductions through their supply chain, then avoiding emissions in their value chain, and when necessary, developing carbon sinks by protecting natural ecosystems outside of their value chain. This follows the Carbone 4 emissions reductions framework.

While this framework is broadly similar to the ideal scenario for offsetting – reducing your scope 1 & 2 emissions, then scope 3 emissions, followed by offsetting or insetting unavoidable emissions – the biggest differences lie in pillar C.

Firstly, under Carbone 4’s framework, unavoidable (or residual) emissions should be compensated for through the development of carbon sinks such as blue carbon ecosystems. This is similar to ‘removal credits’ – carbon credits that result from the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere – but does not allow an equivalent to ‘reduction credits’ – credits which result from the reduction of CO2 entering the atmosphere. (It is important to note here that removal credits are also sometimes valued and preferred over reduction credits – such as in the Oxford Offsetting Principles).

Secondly, Carbone 4’s framework does not specify that offsets should be used to compensate for unavoidable emissions; it allows for a broader approach to funding activities that enhance natural carbon sinks. This is where Ocean Bottle’s perspective has changed from buying carbon offsets to a more holistic approach to enhancing blue carbon sinks.

Choosing carbon sinks over offsets

If Ocean Bottle are committed to funding the development of carbon sinks like mangroves and seagrass, why are they moving away from offsetting?

Offsetting as a concept has been heavily scrutinised, and the debate around the politics and ethics of offsetting has divided opinion. Critics of offsetting question whether offsetting allows society to delay making systemic changes – i.e., actual carbon reductions – by simply paying for offsets to compensate for carbon emissions. Whilst the morally responsible approach should be to first reduce your direct and indirect emissions as far as possible – as outlined in Carbone 4’s framework – there is nothing to mandate companies to do so (or indeed, to reduce or offset their emissions at all). Likewise, there is no regulation of how companies present or communicate their carbon reductions – a company that offsets all of their emissions without making reductions can report the same emissions reduction targets as a company that has made genuine carbon reductions in their own activities and supply chains (and has therefore contributed to systemic change). Actors in the offsetting market, including ACES, can and do take voluntary steps to guard against this injustice; however, Ocean Bottle’s perspective is that they do not want to play a part in a system that permits less ethical companies to take advantage of unregulated emissions reductions and reporting.

The reporting and carbon reduction strategy enforcements vary from country to country, but are, for the most part, only voluntary. This means that sub-par efforts and greenwashing by the world’s largest emitters will largely go unpunished.

Ocean Bottle

This raises an important question: what can be done to hold companies to account on their emissions reductions and offsetting (or other mitigation actions)? How can companies with genuine commitments to actually reducing their emissions, offsetting only their unavoidable emissions and if they do need to offset, researching their options and choosing high-quality credits with evidenced co-benefits – from companies that simply ‘pay to pollute’ by offsetting without reducing? There needs to be a clear, internationally-aligned reporting system under which consumers can scrutinise the steps that companies are taking to lower their carbon footprints, and thereby hold these companies to account. This would be a significant step towards facilitating systemic change – publicly rewarding companies like Ocean Bottle that go above and beyond to not only compensate for their emissions but have a positive impact through supporting projects that deliver biodiversity and community benefits.

Net zero: a global concept

By definition, a company cannot be carbon neutral… A better terminology which companies and individuals should follow, is to contribute to global neutrality with the purchase of offsets and other mechanisms.”

– Ocean Bottle

When the concept of ‘net zero’ was popularised in the conception of the Paris Agreement, it referred to global emissions – achieving an overall balance of sources and sinks of global greenhouse gases. It is only more recently that the term ‘net zero’ has been used by companies as a label of their emissions reductions or offsetting. Ocean Bottle, among others, believe that the concepts of net zero or carbon neutrality cannot be claimed by individual companies unless they are actively sinking carbon from the atmosphere – if they are still producing emissions then they are still a carbon ‘source’, regardless of offsets. Ocean Bottle suggest that rather than making ‘net zero’ or ‘carbon neutral’ claims, companies should use terminology such as “contributing to global neutrality with the purchase of offsets and other mechanisms”. They believe that not being able to trumpet about self-proclaimed neutrality will deter most companies from relying on offsets.

ACES perspective

Ocean Bottle’s approach to their emissions reductions is a gold-standard example of how companies can meaningfully engage with the climate crisis and their role in fighting it. They have critically questioned their own activities, including their emissions reduction activities so far, and shaped their way forwards based on extensive research and evidence-based perspectives.

Whilst their full reasoning for minimising their use of offsets is not always fully aligned with ACES’ views, we welcome debate regarding the ethics, politics, effectiveness and social justice of offsetting and our partnership with Ocean Bottle allows us to present this diversity of views on an open platform. Ultimately, we and Ocean Bottle share the same end goal: to contribute to a landscape in which climate action by companies is transparent, genuine, effective and socially and environmentally just.

Carbon offsetting: Is it greenwashing?

Carbon offsetting: Is it greenwashing?

Part of 2023 blog series: Financing Blue Carbon Ethically, Responsibly, and Effectively

Pressure is growing on businesses to show their environmental credentials, and as part of that, tackle their carbon emissions. Claims of ‘carbon neutral’, ‘net zero’ and even ‘climate positive’ are being used more and more by businesses keen to play their role in tackling the climate crisis – or at least look like they are. How can we tell which have make genuine and meaningful commitments and progress, and which are simply hiding behind confusing and obscure terminology?

When a business makes claims such as ‘carbon neutral’, ‘net zero’ or similar, it’s important to know exactly what that means.

Reducing a carbon footprint can be achieved in two ways: by reducing the emissions that your activities cause (such as driving or flying less, switching to renewable energy sources, or eating less meat) or offsetting emissions by paying for activities elsewhere that either reduce emissions or sequester (absorb and trap) greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.

These two strategies are not equal. Reducing our emissions is vital – the average carbon footprint of a Western lifestyle is unsustainably high, and systemic change is needed in order to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown. However, the transition to a low-carbon society is incomplete and reducing emissions is not always possible. Offsetting should only be used to compensate for these remaining emissions – or ‘unavoidable carbon’ – that cannot yet be reduced.

Whether a company reduces or offsets its emissions makes no difference to how their claims to carbon neutrality can be presented. Take two businesses: one of whom has transitioned to renewable heating sources on-site, swapped their fleet of petrol gars for electric vehicles and eliminated all business travel by plane or car; the other has made no changes to their business but has paid to offset their emissions. Both can make the same claims to have reduced their carbon footprint, despite the first business having invested more time and resources into achieving that reduction. This does not incentivise systemic change and can potentially mislead consumers into believing that a business is taking meaningful climate action. Offsetting has been criticised as a cheap and easy alternative to make systematic change; we strongly believe that they should not be used in this way and organisations should be transparent about how they have reached ‘net zero’ and commit to ongoing carbon reductions to reduce the need to offset.

However, the scenario above is binary – the ‘gold standard’ of doing everything possible to reduce, versus doing nothing at all and just buying offsets. The latter scenario is often used by critics of offsetting, claiming that offsets are cheap, quick and easy way to claim carbon neutrality. Unfortunately, there is nothing stopping companies from doing this – and there are certainly companies using offsets to make environmental claims whilst still contributing to climate change. However, our research has found that among our buyers, the reality is much more nuanced and that offsets are seen as one step in the path to ‘actual zero’ emissions: a necessary step for now but not a long-term strategy.  

Rather than thinking of companies as ‘perfect’ or ‘evil’ when it comes to carbon reductions, it is helpful to consider more realistic scenarios. Where is the line drawn between avoidable and unavoidable emissions? For example, the upfront costs of electric cars, heat pumps, insulation and other carbon-saving strategies are expensive, and government incentives are not always available. If a company or individual chooses not to opt for these on the basis of cost – even if they are a small, low-budget business – can the emissions really be counted as avoidable? Purists may say yes – that if you can’t afford to avoid the emissions, you should stop contributing to them altogether. In reality, this is unlikely to happen. Businesses need to stay afloat, people need their livelihoods, and in many cases businesses will (have to) opt for the most cost-effective option for them. There are instances when the burden of carbon reductions is too much to expect of individuals and even businesses – it is where strong, effective policies for carbon reductions are needed.

ACES believe in the ‘3 Ps’ as the principles for tacking the climate change, in order of importance: firstly, political change is needed; secondly, personal (and corporate) carbon reductions should be made, and lastly, paying to offset should be a last solution for emissions that cannot be reduced.

It is also important to consider the value of a carbon offset. Carbon credits are generated by activities undertaken to reduce the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere or remove emissions that are already there. They can be achieved by generating renewable energy, by changing land management practices such as farming methods that result in the release of carbon dioxide, by protecting and restoring forests, and other interventions that result in a ‘carbon benefit’. The diversity of these projects means that the offsets that they generate can mean anything from the financing of a large-scale wind farm with little community benefit, to funding grassroots forest conservation with community development at its core. This diversity brings with it a range of prices – from as little as $0.20 to $50 (and more) a tonne – and the price paid by the buyer may indicate their commitment to supporting projects that go above and beyond carbon, benefitting the wider environment and local people. Read more about how not all offsets are created equal here.

There is therefore a role for offsets in broader carbon reduction strategies and claiming ‘net zero’ in itself is not greenwashing. However, consumers should be aware of what this means and what a company can disguise with that claim, and businesses should make genuine and meaningful progress to reduce their carbon emissions before offsetting. It should be recognised that their ability to do so is, however, dependent to some degree on policies and government support to incentivise and enable them to reduce their emissions – while personal and corporate reductions are important, they come secondary to policy in their role in global carbon reductions. Businesses should be transparent about their commitment to ongoing carbon reductions and wider sustainability, and how their use of offsets contributes to their carbon reduction strategy; in doing so, allowing consumers to make informed judgements on their environmental credentials.

Not all offsets are created equal

Not all offsets are created equal

Not all offsets are created equal: what are “high quality carbon offsets”?

Our clients sometimes ask us what the difference is between carbon credits that they can buy for $5 a tonne, and those that cost $10, $50 or even more per tonne. Why pay more for the same outcome – a tonne of carbon sequestered?

Like all other products and services, carbon credits can vary widely in their quality. But what does this mean, and how can you tell a “high quality” offset from the rest?

Whether you pay $5 or $25 for a carbon offset, the outcome (for you) is the same: you can claim that you have offset that amount of your carbon footprint. However, there is much more to the process than this “behind the scenes” – including who benefits from the project interventions, what safeguards are put in place to ensure that local people are not disadvantaged, and how longevity of the carbon storage is ensured.

Any certified project – and we encourage buyers to look for certification when offsetting – must meet the requirements of carbon standards that set out how projects should operate, including calculating the carbon captured, how the community should be engaged, and how socio-economic factors should be considered. This means, on paper at least, that high standards are maintained. The principles and values vary between standards; for example, the Plan Vivo Standard places particular emphasis on the socio-economic development of less-developed nations and allows for flexibility in project design that enhances accessibility for small projects.

Certification is not failsafe, however: certified projects have been criticised on the grounds of human rights breaches, failing to ensure long-term carbon storage, and providing no carbon benefit beyond what would have occurred anyway. These criticisms are more common in the compliance carbon market than the voluntary market that we are part of (see here for an explanation of the two and their differences), however as project developers and carbon buyers, we need to ensure that these failures are not perpetuated in the projects that we run and choose to support.

So, what should buyers look for in a project?

Projects should be able to demonstrate how they engage with, involve and benefit the local community, and be able to provide evidence of this. Community consultations are a start, but are local people given opportunities to work for and govern projects? Does the project deliver financial, infrastructure or other tangible benefits for local people? How does the project monitor and act on adverse impacts on the community such as reduced access to timber? What power does the community have in decision-making? Community involvement is vital to project sustainability – carbon projects are often sited in developing nations where natural resource reliance is high, and if the needs of the community are not met the project risks alienating, disadvantaging or even displacing people, or failing altogether.

Carbon offsets are generally expected to be “permanent” to at least 100 years – that is, carbon that is stored should be locked away for at least a century. Of course, we cannot guarantee this; no one can truly say what will happen in 100 years’ time. ‘Permanence’, as it is known, is assessed on a number of factors including how the project addresses drivers of degradation and potential “exit strategies” for if and when the project comes to an end. Buyers should look for meaningful action by project developers to ensure that the stored carbon won’t be at risk as soon as the project ends. Does the project enhance environmental education? Are local people empowered to manage their local resources? Does the project address the core reasons for the loss of carbon, such as poverty that drives people to cut timber for firewood? While we cannot guarantee the future, actions such as these improve the chance that damaging activities won’t just return to normal at the end of the project.

Carbon is of course the core feature of an offset, but it doesn’t have to be the only one. Projects can deliver community development benefits such as funding education or providing water, enhancing biodiversity, or helping local people to develop more diverse livelihoods to ease the pressure on natural resources and provide jobs to local people.

We encourage buyers to explore projects Project Design Documents (or PDDs) – these should be available through the standard to which a project is certified and contain detailed information on how a project is structured and operates. Ask to speak to those in charge of the projects (at ACES, we are always happy to have a conversation with buyers and prospective buyers, whether you’re looking to buy 1 tonne or 1,000 tonnes). Developers should be transparent about their projects, including on how money is spent – some projects are worth paying a higher price for, but you should be confident that if you choose this option, your money is being spent well.

Critics of offsetting point to examples of bad practice in carbon trading projects as reason to avoid offsetting altogether. The carbon trading world is not immune to misguided or even malevolent practices that have resulted in miscarriages of justice for people or for the climate, and project developers and carbon standards should and do learn from these to prevent them from pervading in the industry. Carbon buyers should be aware of the diverse perspectives on offsetting, but also should be able to make informed decisions at a project level when considering offsetting so that they can support valuable projects that deliver not only carbon reductions, but broader benefits for people, wildlife and the environment.

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).

Tackling the climate crisis: The 3 Ps

Tackling the climate crisis: The 3 Ps

Robyn Shilland (10min read)

The climate crisis is the biggest challenge of our time. It affects every one of us on earth, and we all have a responsibility to be part of the solution. Tackling this crisis head-on is a huge and complex task. It involves all of us acting not only as individuals but as institutions and as a community. It involves bold decisions, decisive action and a willingness to make changes to our own lifestyles.

When we’re faced with how to approach the challenge as individuals, organisations, nations and as an international community, there are debates as to who should be bearing the burden of action. We can all do our bit as individuals – walking, cycling or taking the bus, cutting down on flying, turning the heating down a degree or two – but these changes can feel piecemeal in comparison to emissions from industries and from nations as a whole. And alongside this, there’s the concept of offsetting – continuing to emit but paying to make up for it elsewhere.

Reducing our carbon footprint – as individuals, institutions and nations – is first and foremost when it comes to making a difference. Our lifestyles, particularly in the west, are unsustainable – this has been recognised for decades now, and yet we are only recently coming to truly accept this. The Global Footprint Network estimates that we need 1.75 earths to sustain our lifestyle. That number shoots up when you look at individual developed countries – if we all lived like the UAE, for example, we would need 5.4 earths to sustain our lifestyle.

More recent than the push to reduce our footprint is the concept of offsetting. Offsetting means paying for activities or land management measures that make up for emissions or degradation elsewhere. Carbon offsetting is the most prominent form of offsetting today, and involves people, organisations and nations paying for activities that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere in order to offset their own carbon emissions such as from flights.

Carbon offsetting has been criticised as a distraction from reducing carbon emissions. Why bother changing our activities and lifestyles when we can just pay someone else to make up for it? The economics of offsetting mean that it is largely people and organisations in developed countries paying for offsets in developing countries, raising further ethical challenges about who should be bearing responsibility for the climate crisis.

These criticisms aren’t unfounded. Offsetting should not be used as the first line of defence against the climate crisis – it is simply not enough, and not sustainable, to expect offsets to make up for the lifestyles of developed countries.

Yet, we at ACES still decide to use offsets as a means of conservation. Why?

We see offsetting as just one part of the solution. We have developed the concept of the ‘3 Ps’ to illustrate our position on where offsetting lies in the bigger picture. In order of importance, they demonstrate how action needs to be taken to address the climate crisis.

First of all, we need political action. The biggest impact on the climate crisis can be made by the international community taking bold decisions to reduce emissions on national scales to reduce emissions from manufacturing, transport, energy and other large-scale, polluting activities. Actions must be taken by nations to incentivise and facilitate low-carbon lifestyles, and these lifestyles must be adopted through personal action. The climate crisis is out of the hands of individuals alone, but by making changes to our own lifestyles we can make a collective contribution to the solution to the climate crisis. Taking public transport instead of the car, cutting out non-essential flights and making our homes more energy-efficient may feel like a drop in the ocean, but together our carbon reductions add up. And as consumers we can vote with our wallets, demanding that institutions change their ways.

Yet we can only go so far. It will take time to adapt as a society to a truly low- or zero-carbon lifestyle. Even with the best intentions, we are all at risk of overshooting the one-planet lifestyle. And this is where offsetting comes in. It is the last resort after we have done what we can as individuals, institutions and nations to reduce our carbon footprint.

For this reason, we seek to work with responsible and ethical buyers. We encourage anyone buying offsets from us to first look at their lifestyles and ask whether they can first reduce their carbon footprint, rather than paying to offset it. We are ever-conscious of ‘greenwashing’ and want no part in superficial or unethical attempts to appear more environmentally-friendly. We want our clients to understand and share these values. We would rather our clients reduced their contribution to us if it meant reducing their carbon footprint first.

We accept that offsetting is not perfect as a solution to the climate crisis. It is not even the most important solution. It can have its flaws, and it is up to us, as the managers of offsetting projects, to face these flaws head-on and create projects that are ethical, sustainable and grounded in local communities. We have seen the success that well-run offsetting projects can have for people and the environment, and we will continue to advocate for the place of these projects in a wider global effort to stop the climate crisis.