Carbon Offsets 101: What colleges and universities can learn – and teach – about GHG offset quality

By David Antonioli, CEO, Voluntary Carbon Standard Association

(This article appears in the February, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

Curbing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions is an environmental challenge, but it is also an opportunity to enhance American security and economic competitiveness through innovation and change. Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to help drive the innovation that is required. As institutions, they are responsible for GHG emissions themselves. But more importantly, they are engines of research, innovation and social change. They serve a youthful demographic that is eager to engage in the challenges of the 21st century and to extend U.S. health and competitiveness beyond our own timelines.

Policymakers increasingly recognize that offsets are necessary to drive the scale of research and innovation required. Offsets allow us to harvest the most affordable GHG reductions first while also incentivizing investment in low-carbon innovation. However, offsets have been met with skepticism in some circles, either because of doubts about their environmental quality or because of worries that it is unethical to pay others to lower one’s own emissions.

This article describes important recent advances made in voluntary carbon markets to ensure the quality and integrity of GHG offsets.

What is a quality carbon offset?

Entrepreneurs have been developing offsets and businesses and governments have been buying them for over a decade. This experience has generated valuable lessons and strengthened our ability to measure and monitor the quality of GHG offsets and the systems we use to issue and trade them.

The Voluntary Carbon Standard is a robust quality assurance standard for GHG credits that captures the lessons of the last decade. Founded in 2005 by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the International Emissions Trading Association and other partners, the VCS uses as its core the requirements set out by the International Organization for Standardization in ISO 14064-2 and 14064-3. These standards documents provide the specifications for quantification, monitoring, reporting and the validation and verification of GHG projects and their emission reductions and removals.

Over the years, committees of global experts and practitioners have engaged in an open, collaborative and ongoing process to expand and deepen VCS rules and requirements. As a result, VCS requirements today can be used to generate GHG credits in a wide range of areas, from methane capture to fuel efficiency to improved forest management and avoided deforestation.

And VCS credits, or Voluntary Carbon Units (VCUs), are widely recognized and trusted to represent GHG emission reductions that are real, measurable, permanent, independently verified, conservatively estimated and derived from activities that go beyond business-as-usual, which is known in carbon policy circles as ‘additionality.’

Moreover, a robust quality assurance program, the VCS Program, has been built up around the VCS Standard. The VCS Program is a comprehensive and coherent quality assurance system that sets our rules for developing new carbon-curbing methodologies and for ensuring every VCU is uniquely numbered and transparently listed in the fully searchable VCS project database.

With some 50 million VCUs issued to date, the VCS Program is among the most widely used to ensure offset quality and best practices by projects issuing credits in the voluntary market. VCS also encourages projects to develop “double-tagged” VCUs by pairing VCS with standards like Social Carbon and the Community, Climate and Biodiversity standards. These standards allow projects to clearly demonstrate the ways in which they deliver real benefits to local people and ecosystems.

As more and more projects use standards like VCS to curb emissions, the principles, requirements and processes of the VCS Program are increasingly informing the development of regulations around the world. And as more and more parties use VCS as a reference point, it is becoming an important benchmark for linking the wide range of on-the-ground initiatives taking place.

How can universities get engaged?

Several avenues for engagement are open to U.S. colleges and universities. To start, colleges and universities can make sure any offsets they purchase are generated under a widely recognized quality assurance program like the VCS Program. As more organizations move to curb emissions, they are discovering that offsets can provide a flexibility that is needed for managing the costs and timelines for meeting their GHG targets. Quality assurance is clearly important.

Another avenue for engagement offers universities a chance to leverage their unique capacity for research and innovation – and it is an avenue some universities are already starting to use. The VCS Program allows projects to use carbon-curbing methodologies from other recognized programs like the U.N. Clean Development Mechanism. And it also encourages project proponents to develop new carbon-curbing methodologies to be reviewed by professional validation and verification bodies under the VCS Methodology Approval Process (MAP). The MAP is designed to stimulate the development of new and better methodologies and to promote innovative projects and technologies. It is an excellent way for students, researchers and institutions to gain hands-on experience with all aspects of designing and implementing carbon-curbing activities, on or off campus.

In addition to developing methodologies, colleges and universities can develop projects that reduce GHG emissions and generate GHG credits right on campus. Universities might find they can use existing methodologies, or create new methodologies, to upgrade inefficient heating and cooling systems or to improve the energy efficiency of dormitories and academic buildings. By engaging in methodology and project development, higher education institutions and their students can help push the boundaries of research and gain hands-on experience with curbing emissions. This could benefit not only students of ecology and environmental management but also students of the humanities and social sciences, which are critical for engaging the people involved in emission-reducing projects. Carbon markets can serve as a learning space for business students, and they can serve as a vehicle for new technologies or products, enabling science and engineering departments to access new financing.

Some universities are already getting involved. Michigan State University submitted a methodology for reducing nitrous-oxide emissions through reduced fertilizer use, and Syracuse University is involved in developing a methodology for calculating carbon sequestration in soils through improved grasslands management. There is no limit to the kinds of projects and methodologies that might be developed. Innovative new methodologies for bike-sharing, for curbing emissions from jet engines and for improving fuel efficiency in residential housing are being developed under the VCS Program, and more are on the way.


Universities are in a unique position to accelerate the innovation and change required to curb GHG emissions. But this is more than just a challenge to curb emissions on campus. It is an opportunity to engage at all levels with an issue that will be critical to the 21st century low-carbon economy that today’s students face.

Offsets offer several avenues for engagement. Universities can purchase offsets to help meet their own commitments, or they can generate offsets from initiatives that curb emissions on campus. But perhaps most important of all, under the VCS Program, universities can use offsets as a vehicle for engaging researchers and students directly in developing emission-curbing projects and methodologies – on or off campus. This would allow universities to leverage their unique ability to promote innovation and change – and offer students a unique way to engage with one of the critical issues of their time.