The Final Step to Carbon Neutrality: Procuring High Quality Carbon Offsets

Article | Read Time 6 min | Corporate Sustainability Spotlight
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Kristen Mertens Sustainability Solutions Consultant
Kim Carnahan Director, Sustainability Solutions - Americas
Daniel Rossi Corporate Sustainability Director
Carbon Offsets
Carbon Neutrality
Climate Action
Corporate Sustainability

Across the globe, corporations are setting increasingly ambitious carbon reduction targets. Carbon offsets will play a critical role in meeting many targets, particularly in the near-term. Corporations face pressure to craft robust carbon offset strategies, which is driving increasing demand for high-quality carbon offsets and momentum in voluntary carbon markets.

The Key to Meeting Corporate Climate Goals: Measure, Reduce & Offset

Carbon offsets play a central role in bridging the gap to climate goals for corporations and governments alike. Alongside ambitious decarbonization goals to reduce business’ carbon footprint, high-quality carbon offsets can unlock more ambitious near-term action.

Carbon offsets enable emissions reduction, avoidance or removal projects that compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere (e.g., in a corporate supply chain). Carbon offset solutions that are nature-based also channel investment into critical decarbonization levers, including preservation, restoration, and regeneration of nature's carbon removal machines (forests, wetlands, etc.) putting people at the heart of climate solutions for generations to come.

Although sustainability ambition continues its ascent, climate action is often dominated by skepticism in rapidly changing market conditions, where not all carbon offset credits and projects are created equal. Last month, the number of voluntary offsets retired hit a record high at a total of 39.3 million (BNEF). However, the market is still developing and requires due diligence when purchasing credits.

There are best practices to ensure that carbon offsets do not take the place of a company's internal emissions reductions or decrease the momentum for global climate ambition. In this Corporate Sustainability Spotlight, we will examine the value of carbon offsets, when to activate them, and share our own journey in procuring high-quality carbon offsets to reach carbon neutrality.

Carbon Offsets 101: Definition and Project Types

Achieving Carbon Neutrality: A Strategy for Procuring High-Quality Carbon Offset Credits

Carbon Negative by 2021

In June of 2020, ENGIE Impact committed to become carbon neutral in 2020 and carbon negative from 2021. After collecting data, measuring our carbon footprint and identifying internal emissions reduction measures, we were ready to begin the process of procuring renewable energy certificates and offset credits as the final step in reaching our carbon goal for 2020.

Today, to further our climate action annually, we must invest in high-quality projects that avoid or remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere. Our need to use carbon offsets will decrease over time through the continuous deployment of decarbonization solutions across our business towards our carbon negative goal.

Best Practice

Carbon offsets should only be used AFTER all other possible reductions have been achieved in that year.

Step 1: Define Carbon Offset Strategy

Our first step in procuring carbon offsets was defining our strategy and determining which project characteristics are most important to our business. Two core characteristics stood out to us: ambition and engagement.

Because of the relatively small size of our carbon footprint, we chose to limit our purchase to two high-quality, nature-based projects that represent both carbon removal and avoided emissions to make up our portfolio of carbon offset projects.

  • High Quality: ENGIE Impact evaluated the core essential quality criteria while procuring high-quality carbon offsets. Examples of these criteria include ensuring that carbon offsets deliver an additional MtCO2e not claimed by another party, measuring against a realistic baseline, having associated co-benefits for local communities and species, and third-party verification.
  • Nature-Based: ENGIE Impact chose to invest in nature-based solutions because of the critical role that nature—specifically preserving and regenerating nature—plays in climate mitigation, resilience and the broader climate crisis. Nature-based solutions often come with critical co-benefits for biodiversity, communities and water systems associated with the project as well.
  • Carbon Removal and Avoided Emissions: Our carbon neutrality strategy utilizes both high-quality avoided emissions projects and removals. According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), avoiding emissions and removing emissions from the atmosphere at scale are required to stay below 1.5°C of warming.

Best Practices

  1. Align your offset strategy to corporate sustainability strategy.
  2. Prioritize high-quality offsets.

Step 2: Assess the landscape of high-quality carbon offset projects

We benefitted from the decades of expertise brought by our resident carbon market consultants, who conducted an extensive competitive RFP solicitation specific to nature-based projects, which informed our carbon offset selection. For companies with less internal expertise or capacity, experts like ENGIE Impact can help to evaluate and recommend the best approach or even facilitate the process, which could include issuing an RFP, partnering directly with project developers to originate a project, or working with a third-party broker that has an existing project portfolio.

Best Practice

Follow carbon market trends and changing guidance on the appropriate use and best practices for carbon offsets.

Step 3: Conduct additional due diligence on carbon offset project finalists

After completing an initial screen of the projects submitted through the competitive solicitation, we followed a two-step due diligence process that leveraged:

  1. Research and a review of written materials submitted for registration and compliance with the big four standards: Verra, Gold Standard, Climate Action Reserve (CAR), and American Carbon Registry (ACR).
  2. Customized developer interviews to better understand and address any outstanding quality questions or concerns. Project vendors were asked to elaborate on the co-benefits to the communities and ecosystems beyond the carbon benefits.

Engage with Carbon Market consultants to help ensure high-quality carbon projects and reduce exposure to reputational risk associated with investing in complex, long-term projects around the world.

Best Practice

Thoroughly evaluate each carbon project for alignment with key quality criteria.

Step 4: Engage and educate employees with the final say on carbon offset projects

After completing thorough due diligence, we narrowed down our options to two carbon offset projects that met our requirements, then empowered our employees to make the final decision. On the 51st anniversary of Earth Day, we've asked our employees to vote on their preferred project, giving them a voice in designing our carbon offset strategy. By using a gamification approach and sharing educational materials on the role of carbon offsets and the specific projects we’ve evaluated, we are proud to continue to build sustainability literacy within our own walls.

Below are the two high-quality carbon offset projects our employees voted on and that we will ultimately procure from:

  • Project #1 (Carbon Removal): This soil carbon sequestration project creates a sustainable, new income stream for people and community-led conservation efforts, makes this vulnerable region more resilient to the impacts of climate change, and protects wildlife habitat. The project presents a new solution to the challenges of overgrazing, tensions over scarce land, and frequent droughts by providing revenues to local communities to improve grazing practices.
  • Project #2 (Avoided Emissions): This REDD+ offset project dramatically reduces deforestation in one of the world's most significant biodiversity hotspots. It also diminishes the threat of displacing communities and illegal logging by increasing surveillance in the area and establishing sustainable forest management practices, saving precious habitats for endangered species and tribal communities.

Our final purchase of credits covered all residual emissions from 2020, officially marking the achievement of our carbon neutrality status in 2020.

Best Practice

Empower employees to fuel the success of the sustainability strategy.

Navigating Voluntary Carbon Markets

We are proud to report continued progress along our decarbonization journey, driving leading-edge sustainability practices to become carbon negative by the end of 2021. As the market evolves, we are committed to adapting our strategy and considerations accordingly. We’re closely monitoring the evolution of net zero and carbon neutral guidance, the development of carbon markets guidance under the Paris Agreement and changing technologies and standards for what defines high-quality carbon offsets.

ENGIE Impact is going beyond using our expertise to craft our own comprehensive carbon offset strategies and partnering with a wide range of diverse stakeholders to continue to shape the future of carbon markets.

The authors would like to thank Alexia Kelly and Nado Saab for their contribution to this article.

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