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The University of California has all but dropped carbon offsets—and thinks you should, too

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Direct cuts

In 2013, the University of California pledged to achieve carbon neutrality across its campuses and health centers within 12 years by shifting to emissions-free vehicles, building renewables projects, and undertaking similar efforts. But reaching that goal would have also required significant purchases of offsets through carbon markets. 

Students, faculty, and campus budget officers raised concerns about the institution’s plan to rely on and invest so heavily in such an unreliable climate tool. In response, the UC’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative set up the UC Carbon Abatement Committee, which worked with staff, students, and faculty from each campus to establish the institution’s purchasing standards and to identify the types of projects that could meet them. The initiative also provided funding for a dedicated research effort, led by Haya, exploring these questions.

But finding projects that met even the basic standards of reliability proved so difficult that the researchers ultimately drew a larger lesson from the work, says Camille Kirk, who was previously the director of sustainability at UC Davis and co-directed the research effort along with staff at the UC Office of the President.

“You can’t buy your way out of this,” says Kirk, now head of sustainability at the 

J. Paul Getty Trust, one of the world’s richest arts institutions. “Ultimately, it’s just better if you invest in yourself, invest in your infrastructure, and do the direct work on decarbonization.” 

That philosophy is, more or less, what’s now playing out across the UC system.

Based on the Carbon Abatement Committee’s findings, increasingly pointed criticisms of offsets, and tightening California climate targets for state agencies, UC ultimately opted to rewrite its sustainability plan. 

This summer, the university system dropped its 2025 target, after concluding it would have needed to use offsets to address more than 50% of its emissions reductions. Those purchases would have cost the system $20 million to $30 million annually.


Direct cuts

In 2013, the University of California pledged to achieve carbon neutrality across its campuses and health centers within 12 years by shifting to emissions-free vehicles, building renewables projects, and undertaking similar efforts. But reaching that goal would have also required significant purchases of offsets through carbon markets. 

Students, faculty, and campus budget officers raised concerns about the institution’s plan to rely on and invest so heavily in such an unreliable climate tool. In response, the UC’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative set up the UC Carbon Abatement Committee, which worked with staff, students, and faculty from each campus to establish the institution’s purchasing standards and to identify the types of projects that could meet them. The initiative also provided funding for a dedicated research effort, led by Haya, exploring these questions.

But finding projects that met even the basic standards of reliability proved so difficult that the researchers ultimately drew a larger lesson from the work, says Camille Kirk, who was previously the director of sustainability at UC Davis and co-directed the research effort along with staff at the UC Office of the President.

“You can’t buy your way out of this,” says Kirk, now head of sustainability at the 

J. Paul Getty Trust, one of the world’s richest arts institutions. “Ultimately, it’s just better if you invest in yourself, invest in your infrastructure, and do the direct work on decarbonization.” 

That philosophy is, more or less, what’s now playing out across the UC system.

Based on the Carbon Abatement Committee’s findings, increasingly pointed criticisms of offsets, and tightening California climate targets for state agencies, UC ultimately opted to rewrite its sustainability plan. 

This summer, the university system dropped its 2025 target, after concluding it would have needed to use offsets to address more than 50% of its emissions reductions. Those purchases would have cost the system $20 million to $30 million annually.

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