When flying is essential, how to make an impact through voluntary carbon offsets

Greenhouse gas emissions from the airline industry are reaching new heights. By 2050, more than a quarter of all global emissions are expected to come from the aviation industry, according to a UN report.

While many individuals and organizations are focused on reducing emissions to reach zero emissions goals, some practices that cause emissions – air travel being one example – are for now inevitable. Voluntary carbon offsets are generated from activities that remove or sequester carbon from the atmosphere or reduce greenhouse gas emissions from being produced. Carbon offsets are supposed to fund reductions that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. It’s tricky to find such projects. For this reason, Barbara Haya, the director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project at the University of California, Berkeley, referred to voluntary offsets as more akin to a “donation” in a recent New York Times article.

Here at NBI, we asked ourselves, how can we reduce our travel-related emissions and be part of a community-based solution? As NBI’s employee travel started ramping up, we committed to offset the anticipated equivalent of the emissions generated from our staff’s annual air travel — which was expected to be more than 100 metric tons of CO2 equivalent from 200 commercial flights — with voluntary carbon offsets.

Voluntary carbon offsets are not the first solution for solving climate change but offsets can be a supplemental tool in the efforts to broadly decarbonize the economy.

Offsets with a lasting impact

Given NBI’s mission to push for better buildings that achieve zero energy, zero carbon, and beyond, we chose to purchase carbon offsets through the Juneau Carbon Offset Fund . They invest in projects that eliminate emissions from oil used in home heating and help fixed-income households reduce their energy costs. It was important to us to be able to verify that our investment in carbon offsets resulted in actions that would help reduce emissions by a calculable amount from a specific project – and where there would be other benefits identifiable that are worthy of monetary support.

By purchasing carbon offsets through Juneau Carbon Offset Fund, we paid the organization to take actions that would help reduce emissions by a specific amount at a specific project. In our case, the carbon offsets we purchased went to fund a heat pump for a fixed income family, saving them $1,500 annually on energy costs. Today, the family is more comfortable in their home, and the air they and their neighbors breathe is cleaner. Substituting their main heating source with an energy efficient, electric heat pump (their old oil furnace became a backup) reduced the need to burn 400 gallons of heating oil each year and eliminated the air pollution associated with operating it.

Working with Juneau Carbon Offset Fund is part of the solution for NBI. Our work with a reputable organization like the Juneau Carbon Offset Fund helped us understand the climate impacts of our travel in a very specific and worthwhile case study. And, because we purchased the offsets while simultaneously working to reduce our travel, we had a meaningful and measurable impact.

Why voluntary carbon offsets are a complimentary climate action tool

NBI is engaged in efforts that bring best practices from the voluntary carbon offset market into regulatory settings. We’re working on solutions that help resolve a few of the big challenges with carbon offsets.

One is that many entities “double dip” when claiming offsets. For example, if two entities – those paying for the offsets and those benefiting from the offsets – both take credit for the resulting emissions reductions, it’s essentially double dipping. Competing claims help demonstrate why offsets should remain in voluntary markets, and not be utilized as compliance mechanisms in regulatory situations, such as building codes or building performance standards.

Another issue is the concept of additionality, which means a carbon offset needs to fund reductions that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. In other words, paying someone to stop emitting carbon is not the same as removing carbon from the atmosphere.

A third is the need for permanent solutions. For carbon emissions to truly be neutralized, the carbon should be stored permanently (i.e., trees that were planted don’t die prematurely).

Because of these challenges, we believe offsets such as those in the voluntary market do not have a role in that form for compliance with mandatory building policies. However, several units of government around the world are beginning to implement different forms of offset-type programs through advanced technical solutions and something known as ‘alternative compliance payments”. NBI believes properly administered programs such as these can have merit in compliance programs. The next blog in this series will cover some examples of programs that bring the offset concept into regulatory settings as alternative compliance payments.

Bottom Line

Voluntary carbon offsets can play a role in making real improvements in people’s lives while contributing to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Purchasing offsets is not the equivalent of reducing your own emissions from airline travel. Yet we live in a world where it will take all efforts to reach zero emissions – including direct emissions reductions and voluntary offsets. Staying focused on reducing your carbon footprint should be the primary goal of all organizations, but you can do good in the world by researching and investing in reputable voluntary offset projects.

by Jim Edelson, Director of Policy



and Diana Burk, Project Manager



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