News Brief

A New Effort to Ensure Carbon Offsets Mean Something

A set of core principles and assessment guidelines from the Integrity Council aim to help purchasers identify “high-quality” carbon credits.

Carbon credits have become ubiquitous. Building owners have long been able to purchase offsets to make up for onsite energy use (as incentivized in LEED) or embodied carbon (as required by the Living Building Challenge). But now even everyday passengers can pay an extra dollar or two to make up for the emissions of an airplane flight.

At the same time, carbon credits are often disparaged for providing consumers and corporations with a convenient way to continue business as usual: critics say we are throwing money into a poorly regulated marketplace with questionable credentials, and then claiming to be net zero.

A curving timeline showing a theory of change within the voluntary carbon market. The headline is “Build Integrity and Scale Will Follow."

The Integrity Council believes that more accountability for carbon-credit programs will lead to greater public faith and will rapidly scale funding for carbon mitigation projects.

Image: Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market
Now the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market has set new standards to identify carbon credits of “high quality”—a commonly used term without a clear definition. After completing a public process to develop a broadly accepted definition and accountability mechanism, the council has released final Core Carbon Principles and an assessment framework. It will also publish further guidance specific to different types of credits (examples include cookstove projects and forestry projects) in the first half of 2023 and intends to start labeling credits by the third quarter.

The Core Carbon Principles (CCPs) are broken into three categories—governance (principles one through four), emissions impact (principles five through eight), and sustainable development (principles nine and ten):

  1. Effective governance—Governance should ensure transparency and accountability.
  2. Tracking—Programs must create or use an existing public registry of the credits they have issued.
  3. Transparency—This calls for public information framed in ways that are comprehensible by non-experts.
  4. Robust, independent third-party validation and verification—Third-party involvement needs to be integral to the program.
  5. Additionality—This means the emissions avoided or removed through the credit program would not have been avoided or removed without the program.
  6. Permanence—If the benefits turn out not to be permanent, programs must “compensate reversals,” according to the guidance.
  7. Robust quantification of emission reductions and removals—The requirements here include “conservative approaches” to avoid overselling benefits.
  8. No double counting—This covers a variety of cheating techniques.
  9. Sustainable development benefits and safeguards—The guidance calls for “social and environmental safeguards” and positive sustainability benefits.
  10. Contribution to net-zero transition—Programs must not rely on strategies that “lock in” high-emitting activities.

The assessment framework provides more detail along with criteria the Integrity Council will use to identify “CCP-eligible” credits. It also includes a section describing attributes that carbon-credit programs may promote, including resilience measures and UN Sustainable Development Goals impacts. An assessment procedure document describes the process that programs will participate in to be labeled CCP-eligible.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently highlighted data on climate-action feasibility (Figure SPM.7) suggesting that so-called nature-based solutions that remove carbon from the atmosphere—things like reduced conversion of ecosystems, afforestation, reforestation, and regenerative agriculture—are the most promising mitigation opportunities after solar and wind installations. Nature-based projects are often funded through voluntary carbon markets—and many come with resilience co-benefits—so validating the integrity of these credits and ensuring they do not cause unintended social or environmental harms could help secure a better future for humanity and the planet.

Published April 3, 2023

Melton, P. (2023, March 21). A New Effort to Ensure Carbon Offsets Mean Something. Retrieved from

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April 3, 2023 - 3:26 pm

ASHRAE just published a new Standard, 228 "“Standard Method of Evaluating Zero Net Energy and Zero Net Carbon Performance”.  That’s a mouthful and not easy to get out in an elevator speech, but it does establish “rules” for how you define net zero energy and carbon.  [Full disclosure, I was on the Standards Project Committee that created 228-2023].  There are several items of note from the pertinent part of Chapter 8:

  • There is a limit on the amount of off-site renewable energy that can be used to render a project net zero (section 8.2).  I call your attention to Tables 11/12 (which, even though it is in IP units, lists maximum allowable EUI in the form of kWh/sf/yr instead of kbtu/sf/yr – to get to the more familiar btu-based EUI, multiply the Table number by 3.4).  For example, for a hospital/inpatient health building in Climate Zone 2A has a limit of 115 kWh/sf/yr (392 kbtu/sf/yr) that can be procured to get to net zero.  For a multi-family building of greater than 5 units, located in Climate Zone 3A, the limit is 30 kWh/sf/yr (102 btu/sf/yr).  These are not unreasonably low limits – this limit has been established to keep “bad” buildings from simply buying net zero qualification.
  • There are qualifications for what constitutes off-site renewable energy (sections 8.3, 8.4, and 8.5). 
    • RECs associated with procured energy must be retired.
    • That renewable energy CANNOT be accounted for in the grid emission factor.  The utility that connects to the renewable energy source is going to pitch a fit about that.
    • Instead of RECs, you can also purchase renewable energy directly, but there are rules for that – the renewable generation must be
      • on property owned by the entity seeking zero energy certification, OR
      • a community facility, OR
      • directly contracted and purchased accordingly from a 3rd party for a minimum of 15 years.
      • Furthermore, the generation source must be located where the energy can be delivered to the site by
        • Direct connection
        • The local utility or distribution entity
        • By an interconnected electrical network such as the ISO or RTO that serves the building site
    • There is a discount factor (mostly to account for transmission loss) on off-site renewable energy of at least 5% and can be as high as 25%.  It depends on when the renewable energy source was placed into operation (not when the energy is contracted), and older sources are more significantly derated.
  • The rules for carbon offset start with Section 8.6.  Arguably, the most important of these is the requirement that the carbon must be sequestered within 12 months of the emissions being offset.  This practically eliminates many biogenic sequestration projects (like buying tree seedlings and counting the carbon sequestered over the trees’ lifetimes to offset a single year’s carbon emissions).  It is also of note that this Standard does NOT apply to embodied carbon – however there is an Informative Appendix C that talks about embodied carbon that doesn’t exactly tell you how to account for embodied carbon.  The carbon offset must permanently sequester carbon for a minimum of 200 years, and have little risk of release of the sequestered emissions – so, once again, a forest that can be burned down doesn’t qualify.
  • The carbon offsets include accounting for fugitive refrigerant global warming impact.

April 3, 2023 - 5:43 pm

This is all great info. I'll look into it more!