A participatory carbon offsetting policy for Utrecht University

On 11 May 2023, Utrecht University's Sustainability Office organised an internal canvas session with research and operational staff on the university's CO2 offsetting policy. Incidentally, it took place on the day the European Parliament agreed to the proposal for an EU directive on green claims. The directive contains stricter criteria for CO2 offsetting, especially with regard to climate neutrality claims. Since UU wants to be carbon neutral by 2030, it must simultaneously reduce emissions and offset unavoidable emissions in a transparent, scientifically verified and effective way.

UU's approach to carbon offsetting

Utrecht University started offsetting its emissions for air travel in 2017 and recently decided to offset its natural gas use from 2023, as buying green gas is no longer an option. The plan is to phase out natural gas use by 2040 and offset the remaining emissions in the meantime. However, there is currently no uniform decision-making framework for choosing offsetting projects.

To gather multiple perspectives on the topic, several parties were invited, including researchers from the Copernicus Institute (Faculty of Geosciences), Faculty of Science, Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance, Humanities and colleagues from the university's Procurement and Energy Department.

Impact of carbon offsetting by UU

Participants discussed the type of impact that offsetting should have, whether locally or abroad. This impact has to be positive, meaning that it contributes to improving human rights, climate justice and biodiversity. Participants also felt that local communities should have a say in determining the nature of that impact and assessing it, to counteract neocolonialist tendencies. Collaboration with other universities could help share the responsibility of ensuring that carbon is offset in an effective and fair manner. Moreover, the suggestion of working with a project portfolio approach emerged. This way, the university will offset not just through one, but a variety of projects. Finally, the university's overall offset strategy should be transparently communicated and set an example not only for other universities, but also for the university's suppliers and its community.

UU's criteria for carbon offsetting

In the second round of discussions, participants talked about the selection criteria for offset projects. Besides the internationally established criteria such as additionality (projects are only financed because of offsetting), permanence (carbon is reduced or removed longterm) and avoidance of leakage (carbon emissions are not shifted to other areas), the participants underlined the importance of biodiversity and human rights. Given the university's objective of decreasing its biodiversity footprint, priority should be given to nature-based options for projects abroad. Moreover, the possibility of including student research was considered essential to the credibility of the strategy, as well as a potential way of independently evaluating carbon reduction for local projects.

Future research and next steps

In the closing plenary session, participants discussed possible research topics that should be addressed. These include a definition of unavoidable missions, balancing offsetting and reduction, and studies on the actual effectiveness of offset projects. In addition, the energy department showed interest in research on abatement costs related to emissions from natural gas and the procurement department wants investigate its scope 3 emissions (from the supply chain).

The session will have a follow-up workshop on how to further align offsetting with the overall CO2 strategy and identifying relevant material streams. With continued interest in this topic, this initiative could become an official UU Living Lab.