The RBF Approach to Carbon Offsets

  • Four wind turbines on a grassy plain
    (Image by American Public Power Association on Unsplash)

The global imperative to address the urgent threat of climate change influences nearly every aspect of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund's work, from grantmaking to investments to daily operations. Despite our best efforts, it is almost impossible for us to reduce our own climate impact to zero. As part of living our values, the Fund commits to thoughtfully examine its carbon footprint and, where unavoidable, to counteract its contribution to greenhouse gas pollution with “carbon offsets.”

Carbon offsets are an intermediate and wholly inadequate tool to help address the gargantuan crisis of climate change. In every scenario, we believe that individuals and organizations should conduct a searching inventory of their carbon footprint and develop a plan to reduce their impact before considering carbon offsets. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a handy carbon footprint calculator that can be used to assess your own impact.

What is a Carbon Offset?

A carbon offset is a credit for greenhouse gas reductions achieved by one party that can be purchased and used to compensate, or “offset,” the emissions of another. Carbon offsets are typically measured in tons of CO2-equivalents (CO2e). By paying someone else to reduce GHG emissions elsewhere, the purchaser of a carbon offset aims to compensate for their own emissions.

For example, a wind farm creates energy that avoids the carbon emissions otherwise produced by the equivalent amount fossil fuel energy. The farm can tally the tons of CO2e saved by using wind rather than coal, oil, or gas and sell them as credits to balance the emissions of an organization like the RBF. The revenue from these carbon offsets then supports the continued production of clean wind power from the farm.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, signed and ratified by 192 countries, allows emissions trading in a “carbon market,” including the trading of carbon offsets. This voluntary market is largely unregulated, though several international standards have been developed to assess the quality of carbon offsets.

Our Approach

For carbon emissions that are difficult to avoid, the RBF purchases carbon offsets from NativeEnergy, a certified public benefit corporation. NativeEnergy’s Help Build™ program uses the revenue from carbon offsets for the construction of new carbon reduction projects, including wind, solar, biomass, and landfill gas energy generation and clean water projects. NativeEnergy focuses on projects that deliver strong environmental and social benefits, like wind farms that provide revenue to local communities and filtration systems that deliver clean water to people in developing countries.

Since 2005, the Operations team at the RBF has collected information annually about electricity used in the Fund’s buildings, staff commute distances and modes of transportation, and employee travel to conduct business via air and train. The Pocantico Center collects similar data for international and domestic participants that visit the conference center each year. This information is shared with NativeEnergy to be converted into metric tons of CO2e produced by the Fund's activities. The Fund’s Sustainable Development program staff then help choose a project to support with purchase of carbon offsets equivalent to our annual emissions. For 2018, we purchased carbon credits to support three projects: Dempsey Ridge Wind in Oklahoma, Capricorn Ridge Wind in Texas, and Project Sky Wind in Maharashtra, India.

Over the last decade, while helping a number of foundations, nonprofit organizations, corporations, and individuals meet their sustainability goals, NativeEnergy has structured, developed, and financed over 80 shared-value emission projects. These projects have contributed to reducing over 10 million tons of CO2e and producing over 2.5 million megawatt hours of renewable energy around the world.

Validating and Verifying Carbon Offsets

All NativeEnergy offsets are validated and verified by a third party. Validation occurs at the front end; it is an assessment of the project design to make sure it both meets requirements and correctly calculates and monitors future greenhouse gas reductions through accepted methods. After one year of operation, a verification screening ensures the project is performing as planned to deliver real carbon reductions. An accredited third party reviews the project operation data to determine the number of tons of CO2e that were reduced and, as a result, are issued as offsets.

By Deborah Burke