27 February 2024

Oxford report calls for ‘major course-correction’ to carbon offsetting

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An aerial view of a diver wearing a wet suit swimming through kelp growing the water. Credit: Nuno Rodrigues / Climate Visuals

An interdisciplinary team of Oxford University researchers have today released an update to flagship guidance on credible and net zero aligned carbon offsetting, which has been used by hundreds of organisations since its publication in 2020.  

The revised ‘Oxford Offsetting Principles’ provide clarifications to the original text based on the latest science, callCover of the updated principles with windfarms, nature, and plane for a major course-correction in carbon markets and offsetting practices, and outline how offsetting needs to be approached to help achieve a net zero society. 

  “The vast majority of current offsetting approaches are not getting us any closer to net zero emissions, and trust in the concept of ‘offsetting’ has been so badly damaged that some organisations are moving away from using the term at all,” says Injy Johnstone, Research Associate at the Oxford Sustainable Finance Group in the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. 

“This update clarifies the core Principles and provides much-needed guidance for companies, cities and other non-state actors to develop offsetting strategies that are genuinely aligned with achieving net zero by 2050 or sooner.”   

The Principles

  1. Cut emissions as a priority, ensure the environmental integrity of credits, and regularly revise as best practice evolves  
  2. Transition to carbon removal offsetting for any residual emissions (away from emissions avoidance or reduction) by the global net zero target date
  3. Shift to removals with durable storage and low risk of reversal    
  4. Support the development of innovative and integrated approaches to achieving net zero 

The revisions further highlight the urgency of emission reductions and the need to scale up carbon removal, as well as the critical role of nature-based solutions. The updates also clarify durability risks and offer insights into the co-benefits and challenges of different carbon removal approaches, and call for mitigation efforts beyond organisational net zero targets.

“The revised Principles are designed to correct some critical carbon market failures,” says Kaya Axelsson, co-author and Head of Policy and Partnerships at Oxford Net Zero. “One little-known fact is that hardly any of the carbon market removes and stores carbon at all. Currently, the majority of carbon credits are for avoided emissions, and these are often over-credited or have trouble proving that they had an impact beyond what would have happened anyway.”  

"A key update to the Principles acknowledges the variety of credible options available for carbon storage," adds Audrey Wagner, co-author from the Department of Biology. "For instance, while storing carbon underground in geological reservoirs is thought to have low risk of reversal, high integrity nature-based approaches – that respect local rights and support biodiversity – can also store carbon for centuries across a range of ecosystems. But given the multiple benefits of nature-based solutions beyond carbon removal and storage, including building resilience to climate change impacts, it makes sense to invest in them even when they carry a moderate risk of reversal in the short to medium term."   

While the Principles provide a useful framework for offsetting strategies based on the latest science and evidence, regulation is now urgently needed, say the authors. Governments, standard setters and others must deploy them, to steer the market away from low-quality credits and low-integrity offsetting strategies.