2021–2030 is the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which aims to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean. This restoration can help to end poverty, mitigate climate change, forward social equality, prevent extinctions and promote peace. These global challenges are met by action in the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Carbon offsets are a well established market mechanism that allows an organization to address their greenhouse gas accounting and emissions footprint by supporting projects that reduce or remove atmospheric carbon. A supersize example of corporate carbon offsetting is with the airlines. The vast majority of their carbon emissions comes from the burning of jet fuel, so unless they aren’t conducting business, airlines are emitting a lot of carbon. In order to address their GHG footprint the only current feasible option is investing in carbon offset projects. A lot of companies are now starting to invest in offset projects for their use in GHG accounting, but most miss how supporting the right project can align with SDGs that match with CSR priorities. The right offset project can align with various corporate responsibility initiatives.
In February 2020, Delta made a 10 year, $1 billion commitment to become the first carbon neutral airline globally. Offsets will place a major role in this commitment. Delta has invested in a project that protects 59,941 hectares in Guatemala. Because of the project’s community based, working conservation qualities, it supports 12 of the 17 SDGs, in addition to its carbon value.
Not all offset projects can have such a comprehensive scope of sustainability. But every project produces co-benefits beyond it’s carbon sequestration or avoidance. The financing provided through the right collaboration can also conserve natural areas that might otherwise fall to development, termed “additionality”.
Two stories of SDG alignment for offsets
A very successful carbon offset story comes from household cookstoves that were provided to families in south Asia. Most of the household cooking in India, Nepal and Pakistan is done by women, who also spend a lot of time collecting wood for fuel, then often cook indoors without proper ventilation. While this common practice is done out of necessity, it time consuming, unhealthy and destructive to a local ecosystem.
Clean burning, efficient fuel stoves were provided to people for daily use. Verified carbon offsets were generated by the projects, sold and in turn, deployed more stoves. Which UN SDGs were supported?
SDG 1 — No Poverty — Households used less of their income and time on acquiring wood fuel
SDG 3 — Good Health and Well-Being — Indoor air quality improved to reduce related health problems
SDG 5 — Gender Equality — Women had less daily demand to acquire wood fuel, a function which would not provide any social mobility
SDG 7 — Affordable & Clean Energy — It’s at the core of the project
SDG 8 — Decent Work and Economic Growth — Increased time to seek additional employment & job opportunity in stove production & maintenance
SDG 13 — Climate Action — Reduced GHG emissions
SDG 15 — Life on Land — Reduced deforestation from local wood fuel use
UPM Blandin Native American Hardwoods Conservation Project — 188k acres of native, mixed hardwood forests in Minnesota that supplies timber for paper mills entered into a conservation easement to keep the land as forest in perpetuity with public access. Blandin, the operating company worked with Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Forest Stewardship Council and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification to create a business of sustainable forestry. The project produced verified carbon offsets that helped to preserve the forested land. Which UN SDGs were supported?
SDG 3 — Good Health and Well-Being — The presence of forests will maintain air quality for local communities and provide natural areas for wellness and recreation
SDG 6 — Clean Water and Sanitation — This forest provides the environmental service of water quality protection
SDG 8 — Decent Work and Economic Growth — Sustainable forestry provides long term employment and job opportunity for supporting businesses and recreation.
SDG 12 — Responsible Consumption and Production — Certified forestry products that promote sustainability
SDG 13 — Climate Action — Increased carbon sequestration through conserved forests and sustainable forestry
SDG 15 — Life on Land — Biodiversity protection that includes 47 bird species, trout, moose, black bear and grey wolf
At the heart of any successful conservation project that can generate offsets are partnerships. The UN Sustainable Development Goal 17 is Partnerships. The cookstove and sustainable forestry projects both required private sector, government and nonprofit partners to envision and work for an outcome that benefited economics, community health and ecosystem protections.
An organization that looks at a carbon offset projects only in terms of a GHG footprint and accounting is missing the forest behind the tree. A company can select a project that supports multiple UN Sustainable Development Goals that can align with existing corporate responsibility initiatives or help to establish a new one. These projects have stories to tell that can engage customers and employees for additional buy-in. An ambitious company can create their own project with the right partner.
Investing in a carbon offset is easy, so think deeper, think total impact, think globally sustainable.