Beyond Net Zero: How Carbon Credits Can Help Businesses Reach Additional Social and Environmental Goals

Carbon credit projects can go beyond offsetting emissions by also providing economic opportunities to local communities, supporting biodiversity and more.

A mangrove forest
Photo by Timothy K / Unsplash

Cutting all carbon emissions in the near term is impractical for many businesses. Even when using renewable energy for transportation, adapting buildings to use less energy, digitizing paper-based processes, and more, lower levels of emissions tend to linger.

For example, “solar panel production is reliant on fossil fuels. It also involves mining for precious metals, which contributes to greenhouse gasses and pollution,” notes EcoWatch.

That’s not to say that businesses shouldn’t switch to renewable energy; far from it. The benefits, including lower emissions compared to fossil fuels, can easily pay off over time. Nor should businesses consider themselves to be off the hook for getting to net zero.

Instead, they can turn to carbon credits to offset emissions they haven’t been able to cut yet.

By paying for carbon reduction elsewhere — e.g., planting trees to absorb carbon — businesses can balance their carbon emissions.

Plenty of criticism exists about the efficacy of carbon offsets, some of which is fair. But that potentially further underscores the opportunities that businesses have to make even more impact by selecting high-quality carbon credit projects.

By funding projects that provide economic opportunities to indigenous communities, promote biodiversity, support global health, etc., businesses can also reach their own environmental and social goals. A carbon credit project that protects a rainforest home to an array of wildlife, for example, might be more valuable to some companies than a carbon capture project that does not have direct biodiversity benefits.

Still, finding and participating in high-quality carbon credit projects can be challenging. In a recent media briefing produced by Browning Environmental Communications, a panel of climate experts shared their views on making an impact beyond carbon.

“To protect and restore nature, as many people say, you can't just put a fence up, especially with 7 billion people on this planet going to over 10 billion by 2050. These vital ecosystems are home to thousands of people who interact daily with the environment,” said the moderator, Nick Nuttall, Former Communications Director and Spokesperson, UN Environment Programme and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“Unless projects are put on a sustainable development path — with these communities and people at the core — the long-term protection and conservation of natural carbon sinks is going to be very challenging, if not, in some cases, impossible,” he added.

Inclusive Carbon Credit Projects

Seeds of Change
Photo by Joshua Lanzarini / Unsplash

Rather than looking at carbon credits as an accounting matter — one ton of carbon emissions here gets negated by one ton offset there — businesses can optimize impact by purchasing carbon credits that are more inclusive of the people and overall environment in the communities where these projects take place.

“These aren't carbon credit projects. These are community habitat restoration [and] conservation projects…centered around engaging the local community [and] providing support,” said Ben Scheelk, Program Officer, The Ocean Foundation.

In other words, carbon credits offer a way to finance important social and environmental work, particularly if the money is being used in a way that benefits local communities. And businesses should consider supporting projects that have this inclusivity.

“Carbon is the tool for us to achieve biological conservation and social benefits,” said Natalia Arango Vélez, Executive Director, Fondo Acción, which does environmental and childhood work in Colombia.  

“And Columbia has a very particular setting because most of our largest tracts of forest are owned by ethnic communities. And they are also hotspots of biodiversity,” she added. “So you start by designing projects that are actually calling for the full participation of the owners of the land. There's no way to design a long-lasting project…if you don't design with the communities.”

Mike Korchinsky, Founder of community-centered conservation company Wildlife Works, added that “as the Global North is doing a lot of introspection and navel gazing about climate, the communities that we work with have also become much more aware of their own voice and of their own role, and of how that needs to meet their needs, their investment, and their future, if we all want to see it succeed.”

So, businesses can look for projects that demonstrate community involvement, which can then more directly lead to benefits like economic development in these communities.

Businesses can also reach social and environmental goals by getting involved with these projects beyond using them solely as a way to offset carbon emissions.

“For example, we worked with a bank, and the bank offered to buy the credits, not for carbon taxing purposes, but for their own social responsibility. And beyond buying the credits, they provided financial training” for the community where the project took place, said Arango Vélez.

Providing initial funding for high-quality projects can also help get them off the ground, giving businesses a way to make an impact beyond their own offsetting.

“It's really challenging to finance a project from feasibility, stakeholder engagement implementation through monitoring just with carbon credits, in many cases,” said Scheelk. “So for them to provide more support at the onset, and to help with those stakeholder engagement efforts and paying for some of these feasibility assessments, without any expectation of carbon credits in return, I think that would be a noble goal that many more industries should take on.”

Finding Alignment

Photo by Benjamin L. Jones / Unsplash

Businesses looking to increase their impact can also support carbon credit projects that align with their company missions and support the communities where they operate.

In some sense, a ton of CO2 emissions is the same in Africa as it is in Europe, but “by encouraging businesses to look at where they're actually operating and trying to have a positive impact — yes, on the global climate with a ton of CO2, but also with the clear benefits of any project that they are investing in, in their area of operation — that can only be a positive,” said Leah Glass, Technical Advisor – Mangroves and Blue Carbon, Blue Ventures, a social enterprise.

That could even mean paying a premium for carbon credits when the additional benefits align with the company’s goals.

Scheelk noted how he’s heard of projects fetching higher prices based on their support for coastal environments, given that many companies “depend on healthy coastal environments to make a profit.”

In all, carbon credits offer businesses ways to not only reduce their carbon footprint on an accounting basis but also directly support projects that help people and the planet.

Being more selective about the projects companies support can go a long way toward reaching broader environmental and social goals, while even helping businesses support their own livelihoods via stronger communities in the areas where they operate.

Disclosure: Our parent company, JournoContent LLC, has clients involved in sustainability-related areas, among others. The owner of Carbon Neutral Copy, Jacob (Jake) Safane, has investments in sustainability-related companies, among others.

As such, conflicts of interest related to these and other investments/business relationships, even if unintended, may exist at times. Please email if you'd like further clarification on any issues.

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