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Carbon offsets, scorecards and the David Suzuki Foundation Guide to Purchasing Carbon Offsets

Credit: TBSteve

While climate change policy is not one of my strongest and core areas of research, I am familiar with the literature, particularly as it applies to my other pursuits. Integrated assessment (IA, the methodological framework I used when I wrote my PhD dissertation) is a series of heuristics used to integrate knowledge from natural and social sciences in order to inform policy design. IA can be used in a variety of knowledge domains. IA has been extensively used in climate change policy, but in my doctoral research, I applied it to a problem normally situated within the realm of environmental economic geography. While conducting research for my doctorate, I made extensive use of climate change literature.

I preface this post with the disclaimer that climate change and in particular carbon offsetting is not precisely my area of expertise because I am not commenting on the actual content, but I want to comment primarily on the way in which the recent publication by Deborah Carlson and Paul Lingl from the David Suzuki Foundation and Rich Wong from the Pembina Institute Purchasing Carbon Offsets: A Guide for Canadian Consumers, Businesses, and Organizations” should be used. As the authors of the analysis very aptly indicate:

This guide offers general information for individuals, businesses, and organizations interested in voluntarily using carbon offsets to mitigate their climate impact, and compares specific offset vendors on the basis of criteria established by staff from the David Suzuki Foundation and Pembina Institute. The results presented in this guide are meant only to illustrate the performance of the vendors with respect to these criteria at the time of the survey, and are not intended to replace due diligence on the part of individuals or organizations that wish to purchase offsets.

It’s easy for consumers to go check a scorecard written and endorsed by a prestigious organization (and ENGO). However, it is very important as well for the potential buyer of carbon offsets to do his/her due diligence. I emphasize this aspect because, no matter who conducts the analysis and who writes the guide, scorecard ranking methods may be fraught with elements of subjectivity. The way I see it, the guide is intended to start a process to inform the public on the elements that they might want to consider when buying carbon offsets. It’s NOT intended to replace due diligence.

Scorecards have definite value. Eco-labelling schemes like Ocean Wise and scorecard systems like Sea Choice help consumers make informed choices. But they don’t substitute the need for individuals to research and educate themselves. I think this guide is a good and worthy first step towards comparing how different carbon offsetting systems work.

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2 Responses

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  1. Matthew Paterson says

    Hi Raul

    Thanks for this report. a couple of quick reactions. The report is rather limited in the range of offset organisations it deals with since it wants to focus on ‘canadian’ ones, and only has 6 global ones. there are many more which have diversified types of projects and quality of standard. There’s no compelling reason for someone who happens to be a Canadian to buy from ‘canadian’ offset firms, except the one which says we should aim to reduce canadian emissions. If that took off of course, it would reduce, not increase pressure on the government to do anything about emissions – as you know Canada is now clearly the worst country in the rich world on greenhouse gas emissions.

    It is also the case that you can do offset projects in Canada under the Kyoto Protocol, contrary to what the report says. It is just a ‘joint implementation’ project rather than a ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ project, but the overall effect is much the same.

    The other point is that the main way offsets work is that the developers have to make a claim about what the emissions would be if the project didn’t happen, and then make a claim about the difference in emissions is. this is always a problematic claim to sustain, and all the offset providers discussed in the report are vulnerable to this problem. There are some claims which are better than others (for example ones using the Gold Standard are definitely better than others, I would always look for that to be honest) because they only involve renewable energy and energy efficiency – easier to measure, less susceptible to various ‘ecocolonialism’ problems like forestry projects are. There are however some carbon offset programmes which aren’t based on this sort of project.

    One company (I think a Swedish NGO does also but I can’t find the link) allow you to buy directly the allowances under the EU emissions trading scheme, and thus directly take rights to emit away from polluting companies. Another allows you directly to pay for cliamte change adaptation – directly compensating the victims if you like.

    I’ve a couple of papers on the carbon market recently accepted for publcaition, I’ll email you them if you give me a prompt.

    Mat Paterson

  2. miro says

    Good points Mat and Raul
    wasn’t aware of the emission rights buying strategy (Swedish NGO)- interesting a cleaner planet

    As important as it is to get a better ROI, at the current stage of the behavior change diffusion process (awareness, interest, desire, action) we musn’t lose sight that the greater challenge (since awareness has largely been achieved) is still to motivate change in attitude (interest/desire) then behavior then donation.

    down the line, the ROI question will come to be resolved as more critical mass is brought on stream and we get results feedback.


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