How to communicate about carbon offsetting (climate contributions)

7 min read
Sep 19, 2022 6:39:59 PM

Communicating about carbon emissions and carbon offsetting (climate contributions) can be very challenging. Indeed, there is no common definition of carbon offsetting, which is why it is often considered a black box and used as an umbrella term to characterize carbon sequestration, carbon absorption, and carbon neutrality. 

 

General information about carbon offsetting (climate contribution)

Before any guideline on a practical and consistent way to communicate about climate contributions, there is a need to clarify the terminology used to avoid greenwashing criticism. 

Carbon neutrality is a generic term, which is scientifically valid when it is considered in a comprehensive manner: it corresponds to a global equilibrium between anthropic emissions and anthropic absorption, as defined by the Net Zero Initiative. As such, a company, a product, or a service cannot scientifically be carbon neutral per se but can contribute to achieving global carbon neutrality. 

According to the IPCC, the goal of carbon neutrality is twofold: reducing the total amount of emissions, while increasing the absorption capacity. Furthermore, there is some confusion between avoided and negative emissions: 

  • Avoided emissions are those that did not occur in real value: they correspond either to a modification of processes within the value chain or to the contribution to projects that allow future emissions to be avoided.
  • Negative emissions arise from an increase in the CO2 absorption capacity, for instance, with carbon sink projects. 

IPCC emphasizes the importance of reducing the total amount of GHG emissions while increasing the global GHG absorption capacity. Therefore, climate contribution (more commonly known as carbon offsetting) through the purchase of carbon credits complements an ambitious emissions reduction strategy but does not replace it. Henceforth, in order to demonstrate a genuine commitment to sustainability, organizations have to be very cautious about the strategy they adopt. 

ClimateSeed, therefore, promotes moving away from “carbon offsetting” and using “climate contributions.” This vocabulary demonstrates that climate contributions are a global movement and not an individual achievement. ClimateSeed believes that more climate action leads to more significant environmental and social impacts and faster achievement of carbon neutrality at the global level". Here are some guidelines to be followed, which aim to enhance an organization's impact through the climate contribution mechanism and guidelines to successfully communicate climate action. 



Four pillars for a relevant communication strategy

Pillar 1: Disclose your Carbon Footprint Assessment. 

The Carbon Footprint is the basis on which a strategy is designed. It is thus very important to disclose it to all your stakeholders as a matter of transparency. It is the basis for any decision regarding climate contributions and emissions reduction and is proof of a genuine commitment to emissions reduction. The Carbon Footprint can also include the projects, which have been supported thanks to your climate contribution and the amount of tCO2 avoided or sequestrated, which is why the projects should be chosen with great care. 

Your Carbon Footprint should provide separate analysis for each of your Scopes of emissions and should not subtract the emissions that have been compensated from your overall emissions. 

A rigorously quantified impact demonstrates a more genuine commitment and is a necessary step to take in order to define a quantified reduction strategy.

 

Source: GHG Protocol 

 

Pillar 2: Integrate your climate contribution to an emissions reduction strategy. 

The environment is not a zero-sum game: GHG emissions are not removed from the atmosphere if one pays for a carbon credit. The effort has to be twofold and should combine emission reduction measures and practices within an organization's value chain, while also accelerating the carbon reduction by supporting projects that either avoid or capture emissions and therefore contribute to achieving carbon neutrality on a global scale. Supporting these projects is a necessary step to reaching global carbon neutrality.

Your emissions reduction strategy and your long-term goals can be defined according to the Science-Based Target initiative recommendations and should be disclosed along with timeline commitments.

It is very important to contextualize your strategy within the sector in which you operate. Make sure you evoke your industry's existing abatement opportunities or your research and development investments to make your reduction strategy more reliable and scientifically grounded. 

As part of your reduction strategy, you should always separate your Scopes 1, 2, and 3 and define sub-goals for each of them.

Lastly, always seek continuous improvement by assessing your results, achievements, failures and defining your next steps and improvement path. Your next steps should always be determined very carefully with quantified milestones, such as year-over-year goals. 

 

Pillar 3: Choose the projects you contribute to with great care. 

International certification and standards aim at making sure that the project has a positive impact. Gold Standards or VCS are renowned international standards that guarantee a yearly audit of the projects and guarantee the quality of the purchased carbon credits. Furthermore, projects with co-benefits, to the local communities, should be favored because their sustainability impacts are wider. As such, the co-benefits can be as important as the environmental impact itself. An SDG-based approach demonstrates the importance of co-benefits: it shows which SDGs are targeted by a specific project.

Finally, one should make sure that the carbon credits that are bought for a climate contribution are removed from the voluntary carbon market and cannot be bought twice. Indeed, carbon offsetting intermediaries are compelled to retire carbon credits from registries in order to avoid a carbon credit being purchased twice. This procedure, which is specific to the voluntary carbon market, can be further explained to stakeholders. 

 

Pillar 4: Communicate in a responsible and accountable manner. 

Using the relevant terminology is of utmost importance and will increase an organization's legitimacy and the credibility of its climate action. Please refer to our Glossary (Appendix 1) for detailed definitions of terms. Communicating about climate contribution requires accuracy, precision, honesty, and modesty. Carbon neutrality is not a point of arrival: the more we reduce our emissions and the more we contribute to the carbon reduction project, and the bigger impact we can have against climate change. Communication should therefore focus on the following aspect: 

 

  • Explaining the choice of making a climate contribution as part of a comprehensive sustainability strategy (one that complements a reduction strategy). 
  • Defining the area for which this strategy is relevant: the contribution corresponds to the emissions of a certain scope, a product, or an event. Saying that an organization has a neutral impact is a misleading statement and should be replaced with quantifiable information about the tCO2e avoided or sequestrated. The ISO 14021, which focuses on self-declared environmental claims, requires statements to be quantified in order to avoid any confusion about the impact.
  • Disclosing information about ClimateSeed and the projects to which the contributions are directed. You should make sure to provide a detailed description of the project(s), mention the certification standard of the project (VCS, Gold Standards…), highlight their environmental and social impacts, and mention the SDGs targeted by the projects without listing them. The impacts (SDG and co-benefits) should be described in detail with quantitative and qualitative KPIs associated. The lack of transparency in the voluntary carbon market is due to inaccurate communication. Hence communicating about the projects demonstrates a more genuine commitment, prevents greenwashing criticisms, and is proof of a better understanding of the project. 
  • Defining long-term goals and next steps to be taken (indicating a timeline).

Finally, you should always keep in mind that global carbon neutrality is a goal that can be achieved through collaboration; therefore, you should not use carbon neutrality as an argument to compare yourself to other organizations.

 

Appendix 1: Glossary of terms

Carbon credit: A “carbon credit” (also known as a “carbon offset”) is an electronic and serialized unit that represents one ton of CO2 equivalent that is reduced, avoided, or sequestered from projects applying an approved carbon credit methodology.

Carbon neutral/neutrality: The IPCC defines carbon neutrality as “balancing of residual emissions with emission (carbon dioxide) removal.” Many will define carbon neutrality as when an entity is balancing out carbon emissions it has caused by funding an equivalent amount of carbon savings elsewhere in the world. Carbon neutrality at the company level is not scientifically demonstrated and can sometimes be misperceived as meaning only the complete elimination of emissions. 

Decarbonization: The reduction of carbon. It refers to the conversion of the economic system or individual carbon-emitting entity converting to reduce the carbon intensity of its (direct or value chain) emissions over time. 

Double Counting: Double counting is a situation in which a single greenhouse gas emission reduction or removal is counted more than once towards achieving climate change mitigation.

Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi): SBTi is a collaboration between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute, and WWF to institutionalize corporate science-based target setting, whereby companies commit to emissions reduction targets that are consistent with the level of decarbonization needed to limit planetary warming to below 2°C.

Scopes 1, 2, and 3: A company’s emissions are classified into three scopes by the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard. Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from owned or controlled sources. Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy. Scope 3 emissions are all indirect emissions (not included in scope 2) that occur in the value chain of the reporting company (both upstream and downstream emissions).

 

The Net Zero Initiative matrix

Source: Net Zero Initiative 

 

To reach a net-zero future by mid-century, organizations must support emission reduction projects through the voluntary carbon market. 

By supporting emission reduction projects that either capture or avoid CO2 emissions, organizations commit to going beyond Science-Based Targets and contributing to reaching a net-zero future. 

This action is aligned with the Net Zero Initiative framework, the Science-based targets, and the WWF recommendations. 

 

Appendix 2: Communication material

Organizations can combine various communication channels to talk about their climate actions, such as press releases, blog articles, infographics, success stories, social media posts, etc. 

Press releases, blog articles, or success stories enable organizations to provide in-depth information about their climate action, regarding their strategy, the project supported, and some KPIs. 

Social media posts are very useful for summarizing the key elements of the contributions. 

To avoid any misunderstandings and increase the accuracy of the communication, ClimateSeed encourages you to combine these various channels and use them in the most appropriate manner to enhance your impact amongst your stakeholders.

ClimateSeed supports you in all the communication processes and helps you to inspire your partners. Do not hesitate to contact us. We can help!