Environmental Science and Policy
Alex Barron and Dano Weisbord
As global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) rise, and it becomes increasingly clear that climate change will soon inflict irreversible damage, institutions and individuals around the world have grappled with how to reduce their emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change. In doing so, a variety of strategies have emerged. One prominent strategy is offsetting. Through offsets, institutions continue emitting directly, while “offsetting” these emissions by funding reductions elsewhere. While this method has become popular, it has a history of unethical practices and failure to actually reduce emissions. Additionally, its potential to slow climate change is limited— if we rely too heavily on offsets, our continued GHG emissions will be too high to substantially reduce climate change. However, there is potential in using offsetting as a secondary strategy for difficult-to-reduce emissions, and this is what Smith plans to do with its expected roughly 4,000 tons of residual emissions.
To design or invest in offset projects, higher education institutions often follow a commonly accepted set of criteria known as “PAVER.” These criteria focus on strict additionality as their main measure of success, and this can leave out important ethical considerations and opportunities for innovation and evolution of project designs. To fill in these gaps, we formulated a new set of criteria better suited to offsets in higher education. Our criteria include co-benefits, transparency, innovation, and student engagement. We applied these criteria to 16 potential offset projects, including two expanded case studies outlining green roof and silvopasture projects.
With these case studies, we emphasized both the strengths of our criteria, in terms of identifying benefits beyond strict additionality, as well as its weaknesses; including financial risk, difficulty in carbon accounting, and intensive implementation and maintenance requirements. Due to these mixed results, we recommended that Smith follow a portfolio approach that allows it to experiment with innovative options while being able to rely on less risky projects to offset a portion of its emissions.
©2020 Rachel Twerdowsky and Jemara Sheely
Twerdowsky, Rachel and Sheely, Jemara, "A Carbon Offset Roadmap for Smith College: Establishing a New Approach" (2020). Capstone, Smith College, Northampton, MA.