Imperial College London

Climate experts challenge UK institutions over role of carbon offsetting

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Cutting carbon is a priority, but a new briefing by climate experts suggest universities and colleges must decide how to treat ‘unavoidable’ emissions

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released when people burn fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas are causing the planet to overheat and leading to changes in the climate such as increasing droughts, flooding and more extreme storms. To stop this, individuals have a part to play to stop contributing to global warming and big organisations must find a way to reverse the damage. 

Compensating for student flights, setting up robust and collaborative strategies to permanently bury carbon emissions and creating learning opportunities for staff and students with progressive case studies, are all a new list of recommendations for further and higher educational institutions who are considering ‘offsetting’ in their efforts to reach net-zero emissions.

"Our paper provides recommendations for universities and colleges who are considering offsetting their emissions. Following these suggestions will help to maximise the chance that offsets are of a high quality and don’t have any negative social or environmental impacts." Dr Neil Jennings Co-author

 The briefing, written by climate experts from six UK universities, is the latest publication from the COP26 Universities Network, which is chaired by the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and Environment at Imperial College London. The network brings together more than 55 UK universities and research institutions working together to help deliver an ambitious outcome at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November 2021. 

Authors of the briefing highlight that universities have an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in the move towards a ‘net-zero future’, where carbon emissions are equalled by efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere, such as by restoring forests and peatlands (nature-based solutions) or by technological solutions. They recommend that institutions develop robust principles for using carbon offsets alongside ambitious plans to reduce emissions, which remain a priority. 

Finding a role for carbon offsetting 

Dr Neil Jennings, Partnership Development Manager at the Grantham Institute and a co-author of the briefing, said: “Many UK universities and colleges have set ambitious targets to achieve net zero emissions, some as early as 2030. To meet these targets, reducing emissions of greenhouse gases must always be the priority but it’s likely that some emissions will be hard to avoid. To balance out the heating effect of these emissions on the climate, they are likely to find a role for carbon offsetting.  

“Our paper provides recommendations for universities and colleges who are considering offsetting their emissions. Following these suggestions will help to maximise the chance that offsets are of a high quality and don’t have any negative social or environmental impacts.” 

High quality offsetting incorporates a number of measures, which are set out in the briefing, that aim to ensure that carbon is locked away for a very long time (over 1,000 years) and that the offsetting projects have minimal negative impacts on people or the environment.  

Commenting on the new briefing, Professor Paul Lickiss, Imperial’s Academic Leader in Sustainability, said: “As part of the College Sustainability Strategy, Imperial will be developing a travel policy by 2022 and this offsetting report provides useful guidance to consider as we develop that policy. With some research funders now requiring that the emissions from flights are offset, I welcome the opportunity to collaborate with other UK universities and colleges to ensure that our use of offsetting meets the highest possible standards.” 

Imperial launched its Sustainability Strategy 2021-2026 last year and set a net-zero target for 2040.  

Imperial strategy launches in Sustainability Week 

Imperial’s Sustainability Week (previously known as Greening Imperial Week) will take place from 15-19 February. A different theme will be explored each day during which staff, students and alumni can find out more about saving energy and water, recycling and waste, sustainable eating and active travel. 

The programme kicks off on 15 February when the Provost, Professor Ian Walmsley, will launch the College’s new Sustainability Strategy. Professor Paul Lickiss, Academic Leader in Sustainability, will give a presentation on the Strategy and this will be followed by a panel discussion with the opportunity to ask questions about how Imperial can be more sustainable.

Staff, students and alumni are invited to join in with panel discussions, interactive online events and social media takeovers to find out how Imperial’s research is making a difference, learn something new and get involved in improving the College’s carbon footprint and other sustainability measures. 

Making carefully considered choices

The new briefing, which was produced in association with the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC), highlights several points of consideration for institutions thinking about carbon offsetting, including: 

  • Reducing emissions must always be the priority before considering offsetting as part of a net-zero strategy
  • Establish robust principles to justify which emissions they consider can and cannot be offset
  • Offset schemes must be carefully assessed for their impact on the local environment and the people who live nearby, and they should align with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals
  • Prioritise ‘carbon removal’ offsets – projects that physically remove and lock away carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, such as by growing trees - over ‘emission reduction’ offsets, which aim to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere, such as by incentivising landowners not to burn forests or fossil fuels
  • The further and higher education sector would benefit from forming a coalition to support high-integrity offsetting
  • Travel emissions, including student flights, should be included as part of a consistent reporting process
  • Standardised reporting across the further and higher education institutions, will help track progress towards a net-zero emissions sector. 



Simon Levey

Simon Levey
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 5650

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Dr Neil Jennings

Dr Neil Jennings
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 8452

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Katrine Petersen

Katrine Petersen
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change


Transport, Climate-change, Environment, Energy, Education, Strategy-decision-makers, Sustainability
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