UC-Initiated Carbon Offset Program

Overview

Prior to the latest update to UC’s climate policy, the University leveraged its research capacity to support high-quality carbon offset projects aligned with UC’s mission of research, education, and public service.     

UC supported an effort to develop a portfolio of faculty, staff, and student-initiated offset projects that reduce emissions or sequester carbon. In March 2019, UC released a “Request for Ideas” for UC-initiated offset projects. As a result, we received a set of 80 offset project ideas, from which twelve were chosen for awards. With this pilot phase, UC explored how to procure offsets that align with the critical role that a major research university system can play in climate change mitigation globally—improving understanding of scalable climate solutions and educating the next generation of solution-creators. 

UC’s offset project criteria and selected projects 

A UC systemwide committee with members from each of the campuses, LBNL, and UC Office of the President, in consultation with faculty, students, and staff from across all campuses, compiled the following priorities for UC’s offset project portfolio. 

The priorities below guided the development of UC’s portfolio of UC-initiated projects:  

Cost Effectiveness 
As a steward of public resources, the cost-effectiveness of all greenhouse gas reduction strategies is an important consideration for the University of California. 
High quality 
  • Additional - credits represent reductions beyond what would have happened without the UC offset program support. 
  • Real - credits do not exceed the project’s, or the protocol’s, actual effect on emissions using conservative estimation methods. 
  • Based on the latest science - all projects and emissions reduction calculations undergo peer review by UC-affiliated researchers. 
  • Permanent - for carbon sequestration projects, the credited carbon must be held for a required period of time. 

Aligned with UC’s mission 

  • Research - all UC-initiated offsets support UC research 
  • Education - priority was given to projects that provide students with applied educational opportunities. 
  • Public service - all projects should demonstrate or advance a scalable climate solution aligned with a path towards deep decarbonization; priority was given to projects with co-benefits such as health, social justice, and benefits to the UC community and communities surrounding the campuses, and projects with the potential for climate benefits well beyond the credited reductions. 

The goal was to build a portfolio of potential offset projects initiated by UC faculty, students, staff, and researchers, and explore the viability of supporting those and similar projects with offset payments for GHG emission reductions achieved. 

UC chose twelve projects for pilot awards and began funding in early 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic. With these awards each team was tasked to bring each project idea closer to implementation as a full-scale UC-initiated offset project that would result in emissions reductions or removals verified through recognized registries that UC campuses could use towards their climate goals.  

The twelve selected projects worked closely with UC researchers with offset subject matter expertise to support UC’s priorities in order to move their projects forward and generate high quality verified carbon offsets.  Project leads and UC staff learned the complexity and real-world challenges of what it would take to transition these project plans into verified credits, especially during a global pandemic. 

Over the next two to three years, the project teams worked diligently to implement their approved project management plans. For a wide variety of reasons, transitioning the selected projects into viable sources of verified carbon offsets that met UC’s criteria became infeasible for all but a single project. Some of the factors that impacted project success included: 

  • Covid-19 impacts on logistics, labor, supply chains and cost effectiveness 
  • Significant costs and timelines associated with developing an approved verification methodology though recognized carbon registries 
  • Transition of UC faculty, student and staff project leadership away from the projects 
  • Project partnership with private sector organizations with changing/competing priorities 
  • International government regulatory barriers to monetizing offset projects 

It was clear that many carbon offset projects are valuable climate efforts with significant community and humanitarian benefits. Projects can also be viewed as part of a contribution model aligned with climate justice, where the funding entity would affirm that its investment supports and contributes to equitable climate change mitigation projects without claiming the reduction. 

Lessons learned from these twelve projects and the challenges of creating a high quality and cost-effective verified offset helped inform UC’s updated climate policy focused on decarbonizing our own operations and transitioning from carbon offsets as a key element in meeting UC’s climate goals.  

See UC’s updated climate policy here.