Engaging higher education institutions across the nation to shape guidance and innovation around carbon offsets

Attend the next meeting of the Offsets Advisory Council
June 27th, 2024
1:00pm ET

Carbon offsets are an important part of many Climate Action Plans. As campuses take diverse approaches to meeting climate goals, questions and tensions abound when it comes to creating a sound offsets strategy. This advisory council was convened in academic year 2023 to address these complexities, and continues in 2024 to deepen its work. The Second Nature Offsets Advisory Council is the space for experts within higher education to coalesce around topics of carbon pricing, offset purchasing, land management and inventorying of carbon stocks, and non-additional sequestration, among other topics. 

We recognize that faculty and staff often have limited capacity for this type of work, so our priority is to make meaningful strides in the evolution of offsets guidance and innovation with minimal commitment from advisory council members.The council meets once per month, and consists of a diverse range of academics from a variety of disciplines and institutions.

Join the Offsets Advisory Council

Why an Offsets Advisory Council? 
Since the beginning of the climate commitments in higher education, carbon pricing and offsets have been one way in which campuses have progressed toward sustainability goals. Campuses have taken a range of approaches. These include purchasing offsets on the voluntary market, leveraging internal carbon pricing or developing offset projects from major energy emissions reductions endeavors to fund sustainability projects, inventorying carbon stocks in campus landholdings to better manage emissions or understand sequestration, and developing unique carbon offset protocols and peer-reviewed offset projects. All of these approaches come with complexity.

Meanwhile, the ecosystem of the voluntary carbon market has been rapidly evolving, and the private sector produces start-ups at lightning speed, all promising to serve offset producers and purchasers. Higher education is in a unique position to interact with this reality, in a way that challenges its major pain points while also leveraging opportunities for innovation. The commitment to education, research, and workforce development within higher education can result in tangible, usable, credible, and influential progress within the voluntary market. 

Second Nature has worked with leaders within higher education on offsets resources in the past, and that work has led to sound guidance and education in this nascent space. In an effort to update and further develop that work, Second Nature hired a Carbon Offsets Fellow in November 2022 to facilitate current programming around offsets and develop an advisory council to determine real time and future needs. 

Second Nature’s Offset Advisory Council objectives are to make space for Second Nature to hear feedback from campuses about their offsets experiences and processes, create interactivity between campuses around some of the tougher questions that arise within the sphere of offsets, and ultimately to coalesce the expertise and innovative leadership within higher education to shape guidance and best practices going forward.

What does it mean to be an advisory council member?
The group meets once per month to discuss topics related to offsets. These meetings are a combination of peer presentations and open discussion. Second Nature plays a facilitating and listening role, and will incorporate information shared in both presentations and discussion into future programs and resources for higher education. 

The monthly meetings are drop-in, and are recorded for members who cannot attend. Second Nature maintains an email list of all council members to make space for discussions and resource sharing in between meetings. 

In addition to the monthly meetings open to all, there is a core council (currently 15 people) made up of members who agree to attend all or most of the monthly meetings, and to provide additional support to Second Nature in synthesizing the council’s determinations for the development of Second Nature’s updated Guidance for Higher Education on Carbon Offsets, to be published in 2024.

Who is on the Council?
Members hail from a broad range of institutions, including public and private colleges and universities, Historically-Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), and community colleges. Initial members were identified either because of their noted expertise in offsets or offset-related research or practice. Other initial members were identified based on their SIMAP reporting as either purchasers of carbon offsets on the voluntary market or campuses tracking non-additional sequestration from institutional landholdings. Members include academics as well as sustainability directors and staff.

What are the goals of the Advisory Council? 
Broadly speaking, the Advisory Council works to achieve the following goals:

  1. Make space for sharing feedback about campus’ experiences and processes with respect to offsets 
  2. Create interactivity within higher education for discussion, debate, and consensus around complex issues within the offsets umbrella
  3. Develop updated guidance and determine priorities around higher education’s interaction with the voluntary market.

These initial goals have been developed around known opportunities within the topic of offsets in higher education. The group itself will establish its own priorities, and may determine different or additional objectives.

Offsets Advisory Council 2024 Discussion Topics: 

Jan 25th, 2024:  Offsets by Scope

An open discussion about the scope-specific considerations and best practices for offsetting. We will consider questions such as: What scopes of emissions are most appropriate to offset? Should offset guidance vary by scope? How should institutions account for offsets used by their suppliers in scope 3 emissions categories like purchased goods & services and air travel?  


Feb 22nd, 2024: Offset Management and Commitments 3.0 

As Second Nature develops refinements and accessible rigor in the President’s Climate Commitments, we will discuss and develop recommendations around offsets reporting requirements, consider the impact of a cap on offsets either by scope or across emissions, brainstorm ways to incentivize mitigation contributions, and discuss offsets-related milestones that deserve recognition in campus climate action work. 


March 28th, 2024: The Social Cost of Carbon and its role in campus climate action strategy

An open discussion about how campuses are handling carbon pricing. While the purchase of offsets can be a first step in normalizing carbon pricing at the institutional level, we will discuss the range of carbon pricing options with greatest attention to the true costs of emissions, and explore the barriers and opportunities to setting a carbon price with intention that goes beyond the market price of offsets to accelerate climate action. We will also consider whether agreement about a SCC for the sector can support shared goals. 


April 25th, 2024: Carbon Dioxide Removal: Technology and Interactions

Carbon Dioxide Removal strategies include harnessing natural sequestration phenomena to investing in built technologies that can pull CO2 from the atmosphere. We will discuss the interlocking technologies and potentials for CDR and their interactions, and their prevalence and relative risk in offset markets. Prior to this meeting, members will  have the option to pre-review  Second Nature’s latest Offsets Guidance, Section 2.7: Types of Carbon Offset Projects, to both inform the discussion and provide feedback to Second Nature in the development of the resource.


May 23rd, 2024: Offset Communications

An open discussion about the complexity of communicating a campus carbon offset strategy or procurement process. We will discuss liability considerations, student/alumni/campus community engagement, reputational risk, double counting issues with donors, and navigating the ongoing public relations issues plaguing the carbon markets. How can higher education professionals navigate these concerns while staying true to climate ambitions? What is higher education’s role in the larger conversation about the integrity of carbon markets engagement?  


June 27th, 2024: Working Together Part 1: Framework Development for Collective Vetting and an Offset Buyers Alliance 

We will continue our discussions from 2023 around the technical, capacity, and facilitation components of a pan-university vetting collective that leverages academic research in service of offset market integrity. We will also discuss using the collective buying power of higher education to emphasize such a vetting effort, and to improve sector-wide support of truly quality carbon offsets. 


July 25th, 2024 : Working Together Part 2: Offset Curriculum Development & Student Engagement 

In 2023, we heard from schools who created student learning opportunities through offset project development and through offset project peer-review. We will build on this learning to discuss how schools can better share resources, create cross-institutional learning initiatives, consider virtual learning opportunities, and explore support needs. 


August 22nd, 2024: Working Together Part 3: Collaborations to Address Research Capacity and Funding Barriers

Our work together has clearly surfaced the need for greater academic scrutiny of offset mechanisms and GHG integrity, as well as workforce development to seed the next generation of carbon market leaders. However, capacity building and funding remain persistent barriers to the realization of these needs. We will discuss how working together may alleviate pain points, and discover what is needed to move efforts forward. 

September 26th, 2024: Second Nature’s C2P2 program: Discussion and Debate 

Second Nature’s Carbon Credit & Purchasing Program evolved from a commitment by Chevrolet to incentivize energy efficiency work on college campuses. Over a dozen campuses in the Climate Leadership Network have benefited from the carbon finance and the energy efficiency results that their offset projects produced. As the program has matured, it faces the same critique facing all offset projects as the market evolves, and also involves eligibility and technical compliance challenges that require honest evaluation. Join us for a friendly debate to help Second Nature determine the future of a program that has the positive potential to provide decarbonization finance to campuses that need it. 


October 24th, 2024 : Land Based Carbon Accounting: Reporting and Additionality 

Managing campus lands through a carbon lens poses opportunities for climate action strategy, research, and student learning, and can minimize Scope 1 land-based emissions by placing greater emphasis on the carbon sequestration  potential of campus lands. We will continue our discussion from 2023 to specifically consider the best practices for managing additionality in the reporting and tracking of campus land use changes, and consider updates to Second Nature’s Commitments in response to the GHG Protocol’s new Land Sector & Removals update. 


November 21st, 2024: Emerging Markets

An open discussion on new and novel markets or market instruments for achieving climate ambition. Sustainable aviation fuel markets and biodiversity credits are among the topics we will explore. If time allows, we will also continue our discussion of mitigation contributions, their potential to someday eclipse or outcompete offset reduction claims, and the implications of this evolution on the market, on market-based climate mitigation integrity, and on higher education climate leaders. 



March 23, 2023: Should Institutions of Higher Education Participate in the Voluntary Carbon Market? 

Voices from Campuses on how offsets factor (or don’t) in their climate action and decarbonization goals. We will hear from Megan Litke, American University, Rebecca Edler, College of the Menominee Nation, and Ben Auger, George Mason University, followed by open discussion and Q&A. 

April 27, 2023: Increasing Transparency in Offsets Reporting and Tracking

Allison Leach will present how offsets reporting currently works within the SIMAP platform, along with options for making reporting more transparent, followed by an open discussion period where campus leaders can ask questions, share ideas or needs for additional or different functionality, and explore the relationship between best practices and reporting norms. 

May 25, 2023: Purchasing: Evaluating Cost v. Quality of Offsets
Matt St. Clair and Barbara Haya will share the UC System plan for vetting and engaging with offsets, as well as challenges they have faced, followed by Q&A and open discussion wherein we will also explore the newer, third-party auditors that are vetting projects, and the prospect of a buyer’s alliance within the higher education community. 

June 22, 2023: The Offset Network: An Innovative Framework for Higher Education
Members of the Executive Committee of Second Nature’s Offset Network describe the work that has been done to develop an innovative, education-driven, quality offsets framework for higher education, and what is needed to expand impact and scale the program meaningfully. 

July 27, 2023: Co-Benefits: Communicating Value Beyond Carbon Offsets
Maddie LoDico of Colby College and Joy Baker of Furman University will share their experience weighing budgetary and GHG reporting goals with environmental, student service, and community impact goals. Followed by an open discussion where we will consider the qualitative value of offset explorations, and how to communicate and center these in climate action strategy. 

August 24, 2023: Land Use Carbon Accounting: Management of Campus Landholdings
John Pumilio (Colgate University), and Meredith Rutherford and David Frostclapp (Cornell University) will present about how they are working to improve campus land management through a carbon lens, and demonstrate the impact of land on overall institutional GHG accounting. We will discuss their approaches, outcomes, and challenges faced. We will also consider implications for campus land management initiatives as a result of the forthcoming Land Sector Removals Guidance from the GHG Protocol.

September 28, 2023: Selling: Campus Offset Project Development
We will hear from Tracey Osborne (UC-Merced) about a land-based carbon offset project she has co-developed with indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon,  and from Bob Koester (Ball State University) about Ball State’s campus-wide energy efficiency project, which has sold offsets through Second Nature’s C2P2 program. The speakers will share their victories, lessons learned, and challenges faced, followed by Q&A and an open discussion. 

October 26, 2023: Leveraging Teaching and Research with Offsets 
Deborah McGrath (Sewanee University of the South) and David Vandermast (Elon University) will share how they have used carbon offset study and curriculum development to champion workforce development, campus sustainability goals, research, offset project or protocol creation, and community co-benefits. Followed by open discussion and brainstorming about how offset-related teaching and research can become more integrated and impactful.  

November 16, 2023: Higher Education’s Role to Influence the Offsets Ecosystem 
Based on our conversations so far, and reflections from Second Nature’s Carbon Offsets Fellow’s past year of work, we will discuss the role of higher education as a whole in the carbon offsets economy. We will explore questions such as: Should higher education consider partnerships with private sector entities in the carbon space? Are educational institutions adequately supplying the nascent market with qualified workers and thought leaders? What roles might higher education serve or improve to provide counterbalance to the many pain points of the carbon offsets economy? What are the next steps for this advisory council? 


How do I join?
Joining the Advisory Council simply requires that you fill out this form. Once you have joined, you’ll be added to the list. If you have any questions, please reach out to Meredith Leigh, Second Nature’s Carbon Offsets Fellow, at [email protected].

Join the Offsets Advisory Council Now