UPDATED 05 July 2023


Commentary on the Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting

The University of Oxford has recently published a new set of principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting. Read Chief Technical Officer Owen Hewlett's response to these principles and views on ensuring environmental integrity and sustainable development when using markets to accelerate progress towards Net Zero. 

New analysis and initiatives point to continued growth in voluntary carbon offsetting, including Mark Carney's Task Force on Scaling the Voluntary Carbon Market. This underscores the potential for markets to catalyse high integrity, science-aligned climate action.

Gold Standard welcomes this interest, most recently represented in The Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting. We share the goal of scaling the market and ensuring it accelerates progress to global Net Zero.

Principle 1 reflects long established good practice and aligns with a well-accepted mitigation hierarchy. We especially support reference to non-arbitrary, science-based target setting for internal emission reductions. As a long standing supporter of the Science Based Targets Initiative, Gold Standard advocates that corporates join this movement and encourages companies to consider all scopes of emissions, including in their value chain, in their climate strategies. 

Gold Standard also welcomes a focus on high quality carbon credits. We regret, however, that the Principles do not refer to the crucial need to consider sustainable development integrity alongside environmental integrity. Gold Standard stands for stakeholder inclusivity (including gender sensitivity), strong safeguarding principles and an alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals. Without safeguards that prevent negative unintended consequences, it is not credible to report positive environmental or social benefits. Beyond avoiding risks, a robust, inclusive approach will maximise the positive impact that climate finance can deliver. 

The recommended shift to removals-based offsetting codified in Principles 2 and 3 warrants strong caution. The emphasis of the paper on removals and permanence suggests a need to rush to removals-based offsetting, whereas Principle 1 rightly highlights to need to prioritise abatement in the short to medium term, while in parallel initiating a removals pipeline to provide supply in the longer term. Without dramatically accelerating abatement, the opportunity to reach Net Zero falls out of reach. Put another way, we will have to remove emissions that could have been abated. This should apply to internal corporate reduction plans as well as offsetting strategies. 

We also highlight the difference between removals generating projects and avoided deforestation projects. Project-based REDD+ avoided deforestation at the project level (rather than at the jurisdictional level) suffer from environmental integrity challenges related to baseline over-estimation and leakage, compromising their credibility for use in offsetting strategies. While forest conservation is clearly essential, we anticipate new finance mechanisms to emerge that are better placed to support removals and avoided deforestation and more appropriately address issues impermanence challenges. Permanence is important. Yet through new ‘non-offsetting’ mechanisms that support natural ecosystems, we can sequester carbon for this crucial transitional time period -- while also preserving biodiversity and delivering other ecosystem benefits -- without having to be 100% certain every ton of CO2 will remain sequestered for 1000 years.  

Principle 4 is especially welcome, as long-term corporate commitments are much needed to support project developers who take all the risk in bringing climate protection projects to market. Collective action and advocacy, particularly coupled with honest and transparent communications, also bring trust and credibility to offsetting as a practice, to complement the quality of the credit itself. 

In summary, we welcome the focus and commitment to quality in carbon offsetting. We will continue to advocate for best practices, not only to ensure environmental integrity, but to allow these mechanisms to serve as a driver for climate justice that helps communities develop in a sustainable way.

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