What Makes a High-Quality Carbon Offset?

How carbon crediting programs address social and environmental harms

Carbon crediting programs generally have environmental and social safeguard policies designed to reduce the risk of any detrimental effects from registered projects. Nearly all require (and verify) that projects comply with applicable legal requirements. Most crediting programs also require local stakeholder consultations as part of the project approval process and have established grievance mechanisms to address complaints related to projects after implementation. Crediting programs may guard against the risks of harm presented by specific project types by excluding these riskier project types from the program. Crediting programs may also require risk assessment and reporting by project developers. Finally, some programs – like the Gold Standard – actively require that projects demonstrate social and environmental co-benefits (and not just avoid harm), as well as monitor and report on these benefits.

There are several “add-on” certification schemes focused on the social and environmental impacts of carbon crediting projects. Organizations like the Climate, Community, and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA) and SOCIALCARBON, for example, certify the added co-benefits achieved by offset projects (but do not otherwise address credit quality).

Visit our page on add-on standards to learn more.

Carbon credits were originally conceived as a means to not only provide avoided GHG emissions benefits but also co-benefits to the communities in the vicinity of carbon offset projects. Co-benefits from the implementation of a carbon offset project improve social, economic, and/or ecological outcomes. For example, co-benefits can include improving community employment opportunities, air and/or water quality, biodiversity, biological habitat conservation, energy access, or access to community health and education services.

When deciding between offset projects to buy credits from, if you are confident in the environmental integrity of each project, then the co-benefits can be a distinguishing factor. If buying credits from a clean cookstove project, you should also be supporting a project that reduces the amount of purchased fuel as it enables more efficient use of fuel. This outcome can save households money as well as reduce air pollutant health impacts from inefficient indoor fuel combustion. As a buyer, it is useful to know your prioritization for these project characteristics – do you want to associate your organization with a project that conserves wilderness or financially benefits communities? Do you want to find a project with a connection to your business operations, products, or supply chain? Carbon credit purchases can represent a public relations risk if seen as ‘buying out’ of the problem of addressing climate change instead of reducing internal emissions. However, there is also risk related to a project’s potential to cause social or environmental harm. By supporting projects with high co-benefits, you can turn this aspect of risk into a positive attribute. Unsurprisingly, projects with high co-benefits typically correspond with higher credit prices.