Innovative Carbon Offset Projects Overview

Intent of Innovative Offset Projects and Higher Education

An important goal of the Climate Leadership Commitments is to utilize the educational and research capacities of signatories to advance the science and practice of addressing climate change. The offset space represents a unique opportunity for signatories to demonstrate leadership in developing new and innovative offset protocols. Therefore, the Climate Leadership Commitment allows for Scope 3 emissions, up to a total limit of 10% of the total campus emissions, to be offset by Innovative Offset Projects. Although not verified by an International Standards Organizations (ISO) accredited third-party verifier, as with Peer Reviewed Offset Projects, Innovative Offset Projects must undergo third-party Peer Verification to qualify within the Carbon Commitment and AASHE Stars reporting. 1 Because they are not verified by an ISO accredited third-party verifier, Innovative Offsets are not marketable. This means that the offsets generated by an institution through innovative projects may not be sold or transferred to another individual or institution (except as a contribution to the buffer pool2).

Innovative Offset Projects reflect the spirit and culture of creativity, innovation, critical thinking, applied research, and experiential education promoted in higher education. Furthermore, innovative offset projects support students, faculty, and staff to creatively apply their knowledge and ideas toward adapting existing methodologies and developing new methodologies for meeting institutional emissions commitments. The by-product of this process is real-world testing of climate change solutions and, for those that are revealed to be effective, the expansion of the project opportunities for offset credit generation.

The decision to pursue offsets via development and implementation of innovative protocols represents one of multiple approaches which may be employed by institutions of higher education as they seek to meet climate commitments. When striving for carbon neutrality, we recommend employing a mantra similar to recycling’s reduce, reuse, recycle—“reduce, renew, offset” prioritizes internal reductions first, then directs the adoption of renewable energy, and finally offsets cover those emission sources which cannot easily be reduced or replaced. Innovative Offset Projects may be incorporated into a portfolio approach to meeting emission reduction targets, combining self-generated peer-reviewed projects and/or marketable ISO verifier approved projects with the purchase of market available offsets. Innovative and Peer Reviewed projects help to build academic opportunities into the fulfillment of climate commitments, and diversity of offset credits is also a valuable risk mitigation practice.

Therefore, Innovative or Peer Reviewed Offset Projects which undergo the process of Peer Verification are a good addition to any offset portfolio that also utilizes marketable credits.

What Are Innovative Offset Projects?

Broadly defined, Innovative Offset Projects are those which pursue new strategies outside of currently approved offset methodologies. In general, Innovative Offset Projects may take one of three forms:


a) Innovative Offset Projects may draw on widely-accepted existing methodologies for generating offsets, offering approaches which reduce the requirements of currently accepted offset protocols such that they are approachable by a greater audience and feasible on a smaller scale.

b) Alternatively, Innovative Offset Projects may incorporate methodologies used for other purposes but which have not yet been demonstrated specifically in the area of carbon offsets.

c) Finally, Innovative Offset Projects may put forth truly unique approaches for generating carbon offsets. Innovative methodological approaches for carbon offsets should be grounded in theory, should reference peer-reviewed literature, and should ideally be supported by anecdotal pilot initiatives.

Innovative Offset Projects which participate in Public Assessment effectively serve as a pilot phase to test and refine methodologies, but do not include the requirement of 3rd party verification and therefore do not generate credits for use towards climate commitments. The Public Assessment project pathway involves publicly accessible review by at least three subject matter experts and is primarily intended for two purposes:

1. To evaluate novel protocols for their application to real-world project scenarios, and

2. To provide a less time-intensive review process for offset projects developed within the academic community to test project success and showcase novel solutions

The Public Assessment and Peer Verification pathways are both intended to move innovative carbon offsets solutions forward in order to evolve these projects into Peer Reviewed or market-tradable offset projects that expand options for climate change mitigation. The pilot testing phase through innovative projects helps universities improve efficiencies in both the generation of offsets and their associated project costs. Innovative Offset Projects allow institutions to leverage research and instructional resources toward meeting climate commitments without being penalized as first actors pursuing novel offset projects; these projects may involve developing their own methodologies and are not yet ready or able to meet the standards of existing GHG Program methodologies and protocols.

Example Innovative Offset Project

One example of an Innovative Offset Project which reflects the adaptation of an existing Climate Action Reserve (CAR) protocol (see above, option a) is the Urban Forestry Protocol developed by the Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative. This approach to developing an Innovative Overview of Innovative Offset Projects v5, Page 3 Carbon Offset Protocol, and associated offset projects, targets current barriers within the offset market space and provides solutions that allow intended projects to advance.

Example: The Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative (DCOI) set out to develop a carbon offset protocol that would allow carbon offsets to be generated from efforts to improve urban forests. At the time, The Climate Action Reserve (CAR) did offer an Urban Forest protocol; however, DCOI, in collaboration with non-profit tree planting partners and Urban Offsets LLC, identified requirements within the CAR protocol that would prevent cities or relevant tree planting partners from accepting the terms of project contracts – which was legitimized by the CAR protocol’s history since 2008 that has not yet registered any projects. DCOI developed a modified, simplified protocol based on the existing CAR protocol. By incorporating the experience of tree planting partners and addressing the needs and concerns of city governments, the DCOI protocol has enabled projects to take shape across the United States. This protocol simplifies the requirements of the CAR protocol, but maintains legitimacy by following general guidelines for project level GHG accounting. There is the added benefit of facilitating ease of use of this modified new protocol within the academic community, as Peer Verifiers are reviewing projects implemented using the new protocol to assess and verify their legitimacy.

What is the Process for Developing and Gaining Eligibility Approval for an Innovative Offset Project?


Once the decision has been made to pursue an Innovative Offset Project (see diagram), a project plan must be submitted to the peer review committee to determine whether or not the project will be eligible to count toward offsetting Scope 3 emissions up to 10% of total institutional emissions. Based on the project plan, the peer review committee will assess whether the protocol applied is appropriate and approved for use by the project, having undergone Public Assessment through the Offset Network (or a similarly robust feedback process that would need to be assessed by the peer review committee). The committee will also assess the project’s described pathway for meeting the PAVER standards: Permanent, Additional, Verifiable, Enforceable, and Real. Demonstration of transparency and publicly available documentation of the project are requirements for innovative projects to receive approval for counting toward institutional commitments.

The Offset Network requires that novel project protocols proposed through the innovative pathway be screened through Public Assessment to ensure that there is sufficient theoretical grounding for the proposed methodologies. This is the first step toward securing peer approval so that offsets generated by the proposed Innovative Offset Project may be applied toward Scope 3 emissions reduction targets.

Once this initial approval to move forward with the innovative project has been granted by the peer review committee, the innovative project team will finalize development and submission of the final project design documents and may begin to develop the project.

What Should Be Included in an Innovative Offset Project Description Document (PDD)?

By nature, Innovative Offset Projects are more experimental. Thus, Innovative Offset Projects must clearly describe which offset principles apply to project methodologies. As with marketable ISO-accredited verified and Peer Verified Offset Projects, Innovative Offset Projects must provide a detailed project description, including methodologies for project implementation, projections of expected offsets to be generated by the project, and ongoing monitoring of offsets generated. Within the PDD, it is expected that Innovative Offset Projects will include a section describing the transition plan for evolving the project toward peer verified and/or marketable offset projects.

Because of their experimental nature, it is recognized that Innovative Offset Projects may not initially meet all PAVER requirements as is required by existing GHG programs and PeerReviewed Offset Projects. Thus, project descriptions for innovative projects should clearly describe how the project either meets or is working to meet all PAVER requirements. Project descriptions must also include methodologies for tracking and measuring offsets over time.

PDDs should include sufficient reference to the innovative methodological approaches to clearly demonstrate validity that the proposed project will generate offsets. If the innovative methodologies employed involve innovative measurement techniques for documenting project impact the PDD should contain references supporting these methodologies.

Peer Verification and Public Assessment

Once the PDD has been prepared and the project implemented, this brings the institution to the next decision point. If the institution does indeed desire to apply offset credits toward the total climate commitment balance of emissions, the Innovative Offset Project must participate in the Peer Verification process (see diagram on page 4). As noted, the Climate Leadership Commitment allows for Scope 3 emissions up to a total limit of 10% of the total campus emissions to be offset by Innovative Offset Projects which successfully complete the Peer Verification process.

Peer Verification of Innovative Offset Projects takes into account that methodologies employed in innovative projects are, by nature, employing a new or modified approach toward generating offsets. The Peer Verification process has been designed to model the ISO third-party verification process, however in a simplified way to allow for academic engagement. Although successful completion of the Peer Verification process does allow an institution to count Innovative Offsets toward Scope 3 emissions, Peer Verification does not generate marketable or otherwise transferrable offsets for the institution.

Should the institution consider that the innovative project is still too early in the pilot testing phase to meet or clearly demonstrate a pathway to meeting the PAVER standards, the project developers initially may choose to pursue the Public Assessment route. The Public Assessment process is designed to provide feedback which may help the project make adaptations necessary to move through the Peer Verification process as part of future project development. The Public Assessment process is also intended to help Innovative Offset Project developers maximize academic value and climate benefits through the pilot phases of their projects.

Pilot testing and Public Assessment of Innovative Offset Projects allows an institution to develop and test an innovative methodology at a smaller scale, which is one way to leverage initial project start-up funding and generate greater institutional support. A Publicly-Assessed project may be tracked for several years to improve aspects of the overall project and enhance project effectiveness to the point where it then merits an increase in scale and pursuit of Peer Verification.

Innovative Offset Projects which evolve from the Public Assessment category to the Peer Verified category may not use offsets generated during the Public Assessment phase of project development toward total emissions reduction targets.

Developers of Innovative Offset Projects may choose not to pursue Public Assessment; however, they will not receive the benefit of shared group knowledge and guidance which is intended to help innovative projects evolve into meeting all PAVER criteria and counting toward total emissions reduction commitments. Furthermore, they will not receive the same level of recognition and support via the Offset Network.

The Registry for Innovative Offset Projects (maybe this can be moved to another/ new page)

The platform is a means to present Innovative Offset Program descriptions, methodologies, and discussion of results and adaptations to improve methodologies. Through the Offset Network, Innovative Offset Programs are incentivized as a method for reducing Scope 3 emissions, while facilitating peer feedback and stimulating creative approaches among other Offset Network partner institutions. Thus, the Offset Network provides a means for communication among peer institutions, sharing best practices, and expanding offset options. For Innovative Offset Project protocols to be listed on the Offset Network, they must include Overview of Innovative Offset Projects v5, Page 7 peer reviews from Public Assessment and a description of the adaptive responses incorporated into the revised methodologies as part of the project documentation.

As with Peer Verified Offset Projects, Innovative Offset Projects which complete the Public Assessment process may be included as project examples on, however project descriptions must include clear distinction that these projects have not completed the Peer Verification process and may not yet be applied toward institutional emissions reductions goals. 

1 The idea of non-accredited verifiers assessing a project’s impact to generate offset credits emerged from the VCS Program Guidelines, 2007 section 3.5.2, which provides a pathway for micro-scale projects (those identified as <5,000 tCO2e per year) to be verified by a non-accredited verifier, provided their initial 5 reports are reviewed by a VCS approved verifier. While this language no longer exists within the VCS Program Guidelines or the VCS Standard, it was part of the initial thought process and we are containing these projects within the academic community to limit the impact of potential project failures while assessing project legitimacy. 2 The buffer pool is a risk management practice whereby all projects contribute a percentage of their project impact in credits, based upon their likelihood of project failure as calculated by the applicable project protocol, to allow a project that fails (excluding acts of management neglect) to still claim its anticipated credits.


 Peer Reviewed Offsets

When an institution of higher education makes the decision to develop a carbon offset project that will not be independently certified by an accredited third-party verifier, one of the next initial decisions to make is whether to use an accepted protocol from an existing GHG program or to develop / use an Innovative Offset Protocol.

Peer Reviewed Projects use accepted protocols from existing GHG programs (CAR, VCS, Gold Standard, etc.). The primary difference between these and traditional third-party verified offsets is that Peer Reviewed Projects utilize the process of Peer Verification to authenticate the offsets that are generated instead of paying for a formal third-party certification. Thus, while Peer Reviewed Projects produce legitimate offsets which are recognized by Second Nature as acceptable to offset Scope 3 emissions up to 30% of total emissions, these are non-marketable carbon credits.