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COP26 Universities Network Briefing on Carbon Offsetting

Jan 27, 2021

How can carbon offsetting help UK further and higher education institutions achieve net zero emissions?

Download the Briefing Paper

There are a range of views on the use of carbon offsetting among academics, higher and further education professional staff, corporates and offsetting providers. When and where offsets should be used or not used, and what types of offsets to use, are to some extent value-laden choices. These choices are being actively debated at the international and community level. This briefing note provides guidance to support the development of further and higher education offsetting policies and to challenge institutions, including our own. It specifically discusses the use of offsetting in the context of net zero strategies. We are also using the briefing to consult our institutions on the approaches they are taking. We hope it prompts discussion and collective action towards making net zero a reality.

Key messages

  • Reducing emissions must always be a priority for UK further and higher education (FHE) institutions but carbon offsetting can also play a role in reaching net zero emissions.
  • Institutions should establish robust principles to justify which emissions can and cannot be offset, and reassess them regularly to prioritise emissions reductions.
  • The quality and integrity of offsets need to be assessed with care, as even certified schemes can carry risks. Furthermore, offsets must not cause environmental or social harm and should ideally advance the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Social- and biodiversity-related impacts (‘co-benefits’) are an important consideration when selecting offsets, but net zero-aligned offsetting requires that the actual impact on atmospheric carbon remain paramount.
  • A progressive transition to effectively permanent carbon storage needs to be central to any sustainable offsetting strategy, to address the permanent impact of any remaining emissions.
  • Nature-based offsets are critical in the short- and medium-term, and properly-protected and managed ecosystems can store carbon for millennia, but the capacity of the biosphere to absorb additional carbon is much less than current fossil fuel emissions and will be further compromised by climate change itself.
  • Hence offsetting strategies must account for the fact that, within two or three decades, any remaining hard-to-abate carbon emissions may require offsetting with carbon storage on near-permanent timescales using a range of solutions.
  • Emission reduction offsets in particular are perceived as problematic by some stakeholders, and their use may be deemed unacceptable. We recommend avoiding most emission reduction offsets and prioritising a transition toward carbon removal offsets.
  • The FHE sector would benefit from forming a coalition to support high-integrity offsetting, for instance by co-financing projects and establishing sector-wide offsetting criteria.
  • Standardised reporting across the sector, such as consistent emissions accounting and disclosure of offsetting strategies, will improve emissions data quality and help track progress towards net zero.
  • Travel emissions including student flights should be included as part of more consistent reporting of institutions’ emissions, given the UK FHE sector’s international outlook.
  • Educational opportunities from offsetting approaches could be unlocked, such as developing learning resources for staff and students or using offset projects as educational case studies.

Read the full report: COP26 Network – Carbon Offsetting Briefing Paper.

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