Last reviewed 22 October 2021

The Government has laid out ambitions to achieve net zero carbon emissions from the UK by 2050 and has embarked on a nationwide campaign to engage UK businesses to promote greater sustainability and greener innovation. A foremost step towards this initiative is examining and evaluating your carbon footprint to consider mitigation. Great potential lies within Carbon Offsetting (CO) as a genuine contribution to existing carbon footprint management and mitigation strategy.

How carbon offsetting can help your sustainability pledge

As the Governments net zero initiatives gain traction, offsetting remaining carbon footprint — in addition to greenhouse gas (GHG) emission mitigation — will likely become the norm, if not a requirement, for high-level emitting industries. Net zero is generally interpreted as the path and practice for an organisation to have total GHG emitted to the atmosphere, equal to or less than, emissions removed from the atmosphere. This could be an achievable, albeit challenging, claim by re-evaluating your business efforts to carbon mitigation with CO included as an additional practice. In our feature, Sustainability in the Workplace Post-Covid-19, we explored sustainable business practices for consideration or to revisit with the return of workers to offices. Here, we discuss CO as a further commitment or an alternative.

Adapting CO has the potential to greatly bolster existing environmental policies and corporate social responsibility policies by aligning meaningful carbon reduction contributions to environmental projects. Openly seeking to offset emissions, especially through UK CO approaches, demonstrates greater environmental awareness to both the general public and investors on a much wider scale, as your business would engage with current and trending carbon sink initiatives. Scrutiny towards sustainable practices and positive climate contribution is growing as partners and the public become increasingly attuned toward environmentally-sound operations. As an addition to your carbon reduction commitments, CO would provide transparent criteria and standards to ensure that real emission benefits are delivered.

Compliance requirements may be on the horizon with mounting evidence from recent Government papers and policies, where investment and growth targets for carbon storage were laid out in the 25 Year Environment Plan, reinforced in the Environment Bill 2020 policy statement. Further strategy was discussed in the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. The BEIS announced a £19.5 million innovation grant in May for projects developing novel carbon capture, usage and storage technology as part of the £1 billion Net Zero Innovation Portfolio, which suggests this field is being considered with high regard and will be closely monitored.

How carbon offsetting works

A carbon neutral footprint can be described as the total of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced to be “offset” through investing or even constructing carbon sinks. Investing into carbon sinks and/or carbon credits is a common strategy for offsetting remaining decarbonisation requirements and impacts. However, this practice has been under fire due to the difficulty of tracking and monitoring verifiable contributions, especially where investments or carbon credits have been put towards international projects.

The principle behind CO is to invest in and promote natural amenities and environmental practices that can reduce or remove GHGs to balance or match on-going GHG emissions. Within this principle, and whilst there is no specific definition of CO, the Environmental Agency (EA) has characterised the core components of CO as: “The practice of reducing or removing greenhouse gas emissions to balance ongoing greenhouse gas emissions, in order to achieve claims such as climate neutrality or net zero.”

Existing projects and how to get involved

CO projects and approaches for GHG emission reduction and/or removal vary in speed, scale and implementation for carbon uptake and can include:

  • restoration of habitats (such as upland and lowland peat, freshwater wetlands — flood plain restoration and constructed wetlands, saltmarshes, seagrasses and kelp)

  • woodland creation

  • grassland management

  • agricultural soil management practices

  • other built environment measures (such as renewable electricity consumption, reducing water consumption, and building with timber and low carbon transport).

Some approaches remove GHGs from the atmosphere whilst others reduce the rate of GHG emissions, and some progress from reductions to removals over time.

The approaches listed above were detailed in the EA and DEFRAs recent report, Achieving Net Zero - A summary of the evidence behind potential carbon offsetting approaches. Nature-based CO projects in the UK were examined to analyse their strengths and limitations, and the report will ultimately shape the EA CO strategy in the future. The gravity of this report lies in the identification of massive CO investment potential in the UK where accreditation could move to these approaches too.

There are currently two accredited CO standards in the UK, the Woodland Carbon Code and the Peatland Code, which offer recognised validation codes for woodland creation and peatland restoration projects respectively. The Woodland Carbon Code offers purchase of carbon units for existing, and future woodland creation developments and projects. There are currently 8 verified projects and 38 validated projects (for future carbon sequestration) with carbon units for sale, with further supported projects listed on the Woodland Carbon Code Projects webpage. The Peatland Code similarly offers access and guidance to the purchasing of verified and validated carbon units for peatland restoration projects. Information and guidance on engagement are detailed on the Peatland Code buyers page and active projects can be found on the Peatland Code Registry page. In a recent report, the EA has identified these approaches with high levels of confidence in science, longevity, speed of impact, readiness of application and carbon reduction/removal potential. Additionally, the approximate cost of both approaches in comparison to those listed above are relatively low.

Apart from the UK accredited CO codes, there are further internationally recognised organisations that provide certification on similarly verified carbon sink projects, including offsetting. Of these organisations, there are several which are primarily recognised as the standards for valid carbon credits, including the following:

  • The Carbon Trust (UK NGO which also incorporates the specification PAS 2060:2014 — the requirements to be met by any entity seeking to demonstrate carbon neutrality through the quantification, reduction and offsetting GHGs).

  • Gold Standard (governed by the Kyoto Protocol).

  • Verra (an established NGO that supports its own “Voluntary Carbon Units”).