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Carbon offsetting can be a tool of environmental justice 

Companies can work to target their emission reductions in areas that have borne the brunt of climate injustice.

Carbon offsetting can be a tool of environmental justice 
[Source Image: Jurkos/iStock, Anant_Kasetsinsombut/iStock, rclassenlayouts/iStock]
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In the U.S. and globally, marginalized communities are often the first to bear the brunt of both climate change and air pollution. Corporate decarbonization strategies must address this fact by making equity a core part of their work toward climate solutions.

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Reams of data validate the fact that air pollution and poor air quality—from power plants and other sources—are disproportionately borne by people and communities of color, Black Americans in particular. This massive environmental injustice has been recently amplified and brought to the fore by the COVID-19 crisis: African Americans and other people of color are getting sick and dying from COVID-19 at much higher rates than white Americans. Air pollution and pollution-driven respiratory illness are a key part of the cause for this and many other health disparities.

Both U.S. and global companies have taken a wide variety of approaches in responding to climate change: improving energy efficiency, buying clean power, adopting internal carbon taxes, paying for carbon offsets in developing countries, investing in carbon capture and storage. However, a number of popular decarbonization strategies are better suited to burnishing corporate reputations than saving a burning planet. Common approaches to reducing corporate carbon footprints—carbon offset schemes in particular—have been questioned on their environmental, climate, and community impacts. And rightly so.

Carbon offsets generated through afforestation or avoided tropical deforestation, for example, often do more for a company’s image than for climate mitigation. Some have proven actually harmful to the environments, lives, and livelihoods of host communities. Similarly, unbundled Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) can confer corporate green credentials without actually reducing GHG emissions or building new projects. This is because the market demand for unbundled RECs—i.e., demand for environmental attributes of renewably generated electricity that are separated from the electricity itself—tends to be readily met by existing wind, solar, and hydropower capacity. Simultaneously, demand for unbundled RECs does not drive much new investment in the expansion of clean energy infrastructure.

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The good news is that new offset approaches, such as those being developed by West Coast climate startups Nori and Pachama, have the potential to rectify some environmental, social, and carbon accounting flaws common in conventional carbon offsetting.

One of the most innovative conceptual approaches to carbon offsetting, however—an approach with environmental and climate justice at the very core of its concept—comes from the middle of the country, not Silicon Valley. Nashville-based startup Clearloop generates carbon offsets by using corporate decarbonization investments to build new, clean-energy infrastructure in the dirtiest parts of the U.S. grid.

Clearloop is based in the heart of the U.S. Southeast, a fossil-fuel-heavy region that ranks as the sixth-largest global carbon emitter and lacks adequate renewable energy mandates. The company’s approach to climate and renewables innovation differs from legacy strategies because it’s anchored to the concept of emissionality.

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Coined by the nonprofit WattTime, emissionality quantifies the precise amount of GHG emissions avoided through the addition of a unit of clean energy generation capacity. An emissionality approach to carbon offsetting is therefore an important improvement on “additionality”: It gives companies the ability to drive the addition of renewable capacity in dirtier parts of the U.S. electric grid—the ability to clean up those parts of the U.S. grid that are most reliant on coal and other fossil-fueled electricity generation.

And this is where the environmental and energy justice gains of this new approach to carbon offsetting come about. Investing in renewable capacity additions that avoid significant amounts of GHG emissions also means avoiding the mercury, particulates, and NOx emissions that are commonly associated with fossil-fueled electricity generation. An emissionality approach to carbon offsetting means avoiding both GHGs and other hazardous power plant emissions that disproportionately harm communities of color and drive U.S. environmental injustice.

With respect to energy justice, driving renewable capacity additions to dirty regions of the U.S. grid also promises to increase access to cleaner and more affordable energy for populations and communities who have had few avenues for such access to date.

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From a broad societal perspective, an emissionality approach to carbon offsetting is therefore capable of mitigating environmental injustices from air pollution while driving meaningful climate change mitigation and improving corporate and community access to clean and affordable energy.

From the perspective of corporate climate accountability and action, an emissionality approach to carbon management gives companies of all types and sizes the ability to reduce their carbon footprint by investing in the development and interconnection of new solar capacity in dirty grid regions of the U.S.—regions such as the Midwest and the Southeast. Taking an emissionality path to carbon reductions gives companies the ability to underwrite grid-greening in U.S. regions where renewable capacity investments and corporate access to renewables have been previously blocked by a combination of monopoly utility dominance and the absence of state-level renewable electricity standards.

For the many companies that have made climate pledges and also expressed their solidarity with Black Lives Matter, carbon offsetting through financing the addition of solar capacity in dirty grid regions offers a direct and specific way to make good on the racial justice pledges made in the spring of 2020. Taking this approach to carbon offsetting can protect Black lives by investing to clean up some of the air pollution that so often shortens them. More broadly, a carbon-offsetting approach that also offsets other types of harmful air pollution is an important step toward addressing the deep-seated environmental injustices of poor air quality and the high pollution exposures disproportionately experienced by Black people and other U.S. communities of color.

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Climate justice is social justice. Investing in the expansion of equitable distribution and access to clean energy innovation offers companies an opportunity to make tangible contributions to both. Emissionality offers a pathway to a cleaner and more equitable planet. However, companies—and the people leading them—must act to capitalize on this potential. In surveying opportunities, they should look beyond the traditional coastal innovation hubs and toward “flyover” states that have embraced the old adage: Necessity is the mother of invention.


Zdravka Tzankova, PhD, is an associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University.