Module 1: Introducing the Course

When it comes to climate change, few mitigation efforts have been as popular or as contentious as carbon offsets. The arguments involved are many, complicated, and polarizing. This course will synthesize much of the carbon offset thinking and literature of the last 30 years.


When it comes to climate change, few mitigation efforts have been as popular or as contentious as carbon offsets. The arguments involved are many, complicated, and polarizing.

The scales image above is key to understanding carbon offsets, which exist because they promise a more cost-effective approach to climate change mitigation than reducing one’s own emissions, whether individual or corporate. As a bonus, carbon offsets often promise to create more co-benefits than those that might result from reducing one’s own greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The cost-effectiveness of carbon offsets is represented by the bundle of money in the scale above, and there’s no disputing that offsets allow access to many low and lower cost emissions avoidance and carbon removal options around the world. That cost-effectiveness, however, has to be balanced by actual climate change mitigation benefit, represented by the earth in the scale above. Many observers argue, as suggested by the unevenness of the scale above, that offset cost-effectiveness has taken precedence over offset environmental integrity in designing and implementing offset markets.

Until a few years ago it looked like the environmental integrity of offsets might become a topic of academic rather than practical concern if voluntary offset markets ended up being supplanted by the policies and measures needed to substantially slow global heating. Companies moved away from relying on offsets, increasingly fearful that carbon offsets might get them accused of greenwashing, and even individuals were increasingly suspicious of offsets after years of bad news coverage and front-page offset exposes.

Then the IPCC called for “net zero” global emissions by the middle of the century as key to achieving the globally agreed upon limits of 1.5o or 2o C of average global temperature change. Companies across the board quickly started making “net zero by 2050” commitments, based largely on being able to access large quantities of carbon offsets.

Somewhat in parallel to this, the Task Force on Voluntary Carbon Markets under the direction of Mark Carney suggested that radically scaling up voluntary offset markets could in effect substitute for the failure of policy makers to adequately pursue the necessary climate change policies and measures.

In combination, these two events signaled a transition from Carbon Offsets Round 1 - 1988 to ~2015 - to Carbon Offsets Round 2.” The question is, will Round 2 simply pick up where Round 1 left off, or will it represent a fundamental change in how carbon offset markets are implemented.

This Ensuring Carbon Offset Integrity course is intended for the two audiences now engaged with carbon offsets:

  • Carbon Offsets Round 1 veterans wanting to track the rapidly changing nature of Carbon Offsets Round 2; and

  • Carbon Offsets Round 2 participants, many if not most of whom who are generally new to carbon offsets, and who should be aware of the experience gathered during Round 1.

The course includes a number of topical modules:

  1. An Introduction to Carbon Offsets
  2. Defining a Carbon Offset
  3. Additionality - A Criterion Apart
  4. Carbon Offset Market Critiques
  5. Offsets Round 1 - 30 Years of Offset Experience
  6. Anticipating Offsets Round 2
  7. So You Want to Buy or Speculate on Carbon Offsets?
  8. Time to Score Offset Quality?
  9. Moving Beyond Carbon Offsets?
  10. Dig Deeper into Carbon Offsets in the Climate Web

The Climatographers frequently update course content, and your feedback and suggestions on the course are welcome. If you’re not ready for this course, you may want to take advantage of our free Carbon Offsets 101 course.

Module Content

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