Emissions offsetting: a short-term fix.


William Naismith, Sustainability Consultant

Buying time for technological advancement.

The International Energy Agency calculates that constructing and operating buildings consumes 36% of the world’s energy and contributes 40% of energy-related carbon emissions.

Achieving Net Zero Carbon in the built environment has never been more vital, and in recent years the design of energy efficient buildings has advanced significantly.

But even the most efficient buildings consume some energy.

For a building to be net zero carbon, energy needs to be supplied from renewable sources or the associated carbon emissions displaced by purchasing carbon offsets.

A carbon offset describes the transaction where an organisation pays a third party to avoid carbon emissions or create carbon storage on its behalf. It is underpinned by the idea that organisations can be credited for reducing or avoiding the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere without needing to do so themselves.

Voluntary and compliance markets have developed allowing organisations to trade ‘carbon offsets’, but it’s important to note that these projects differ substantially in cost, type and location – varying from afforestation and methane capture, to cookstoves and renewable energy generation.

It’s generally agreed that carbon offsets should adhere to a range of principles, including being permanent, verifiable and additional, (which means that they would not have happened under the ‘business as usual’ scenario) in order to be considered ‘good quality’.

Achieving accreditation under a reputable standard, such as the Verified Carbon Standard or Gold Standard, is key to establishing the quality of the offset. The most notable compliance market is the Clean Development Mechanism, which was established in the Kyoto Protocol and allows developed countries to offset their carbon emissions by funding emission-reduction projects in developing countries.

Yet flaws in some offset schemes, ranging from dubious carbon accounting to a failure to demonstrate additionality, threaten to undermine the credibility of the industry. This represents a growing risk as demand is set to increase. There’s also an argument that the problem goes further than the existence of non-reputable schemes, as it’s possible that offsetting may allow unsustainable increases in underlying carbon emissions.

A critical role in the current climate.

Offsetting is the final step in our process of designing, constructing and operating net zero carbon buildings. Why? Because, at the moment, purchasing carbon offsets allows organisations to meet their net carbon targets while the required technological innovation and learning takes place to reduce the cost of fully zero carbon building design.

However, we believe that relying on offsets in the long-term risks locking the built environment into a ‘pollute and offset’ paradigm.

Offsetting should play a critical – but, ultimately, short-term supplementary – role in establishing net zero carbon buildings.