UCSF Sustainability Stories

Deborah Fleischer and Ana Toepel, Green Impact, April 2021

UCSF Launches Carbon Offset Task Force

UCSF is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero by 2025—both its direct emissions from sources that UCSF owns or controls and its indirect emissions from buying electricity. To this end, UCSF is investing in strategies that reduce overall energy consumption and GHG emissions, as reported in the FY20 Annual Sustainability Report. A few concrete ways that UCSF has reduced its emissions include installing a 244-kW solar array on its Gateway Medical Building, building its first all- electric building, purchasing carbon-free electricity, and reducing its Energy Use Intensity (EUI) by two percent per year, despite adding 116,000 square feet.

“UCSF has prioritized direct action to reduce emissions, in part because of UCSF’s continued growth and its on-site fossil fuel combustion from its Parnassus Central Utility Plant. Getting to carbon neutral is a challenge, though. It will require the purchase of carbon offsets as a transitional strategy until new power infrastructure is available to move away from the central plant,” explained Gail Lee, UCSF Sustainability Director. “To ensure that the offsets UCSF purchases are high-quality and support our commitment to global health and social justice, a UCSF Carbon Offset Task Force has been created.”

What’s the Scoop on Carbon Offsets?

According to a briefing on UC’s draft voluntary offsets policy, “Offsets allow institutions and individuals to meet their emissions reduction targets, in part, by paying for emissions to be reduced elsewhere. Each offset credit represents one metric ton of CO2-equivalent reduced. Some common offset project types include forest conservation, renewable energy, and landfill gas methane capture.” All offsets go through independent third-party verification by a registry.

It is important to understand that not all offsets are created equal. A key challenge with offsets is determining their “additionality,” which refers to GHG reductions that would not have occurred without the offset credits. If the carbon-reduction project would’ve happened anyway (without the project’s ability to sell offset credits), the reductions are not additional. Additionality is a determinant of offset quality, since it means the offset program is the cause of actual reductions.

According to Barbara Haya, an expert on carbon offset programs who is advising both the University of California (UC) and the UCSF Carbon Offset Task Force, most offset projects are registered with four main registries that sell credits and have the role of developing methodologies for how to determine project eligibility, estimate emissions reductions, and filter out non-additional projects. Haya notes, “The registries aren’t doing a good enough job at ensuring additionality and quality, and there is a wide variability in the quality of offsets on the market.” So, for UC and UCSF, a challenge in pursuing carbon offsets is how then to identify and spotlight high-quality projects. This is where the new task force comes in.

Task Force Targets Quality Offsets with Health Benefits

In FY20, UCSF created the Carbon Offset Task Force to advise the Office of Sustainability on its selection of quality offsets. The task force includes faculty and representatives from many different departments at the university. The aim of the task force is to support UCSF in selecting offsets that align with its mission of “advancing health worldwide” and ensure that it pursues high-quality offsets. It is now in the process of reviewing the quality of offsets in search of offset projects that meet high quality standards and support UCSF’s mission.

The UCSF Carbon Offset Task Force is building upon the work of UC’s carbon offsets program—part of UC’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative—which has two tracks:

UCSF and students across all 10 campuses have been a voice for ensuring that credits bought system-wide aren’t associated with negative health impacts, especially in marginalized communities. For its own program, UCSF is including an additional screen that targets offsets that provide positive health impacts, where human health is a co-benefit in addition to climate mitigation. A draft UC policy on voluntary carbon offsetsis currently being finalized.

In terms of UC-initiated offset projects, Haya says this is what everyone is most excited about. “The best way to ensure that our reductions are additional is to build the projects ourselves.” There are 12 pilot offset projects in the works, which will provide a portfolio that all campuses can buy into and that has the added benefit of furthering UC’s contribution to research, education, and public service. Haya explains, “These offset funds are an investment in UC research and a way to provide students with applied educational experiences, as well as a way to play a major role in climate mitigation. The impacts will reach far beyond calculated emissions reductions.

The UC-initiated projects (five of which are in California) range from sustainable forest management to the development of local biochar to using seaweed as a feed supplement for livestock. UCSB’s Unite to Lite project in Tanzania reduces emissions by replacing kerosene lighting with solar lights in Tanzania and other countries, while also benefiting the health of those who switch. Adopt a Cookstove supplies rural households with high-efficiency wood pellet-gasifier cookstoves, creating both health and environmental benefits.

It will likely take a few years before UCSF can purchase UC-initiated offsets. In the meantime, the task force is working with Haya to finalize screening criteria to identify UCSF’s best offset options on the voluntary market. She is actively researching clean water and landfill gas capture projects. The task force anticipates creating guidance that can be used by other universities and colleges seeking higher-quality offsets, catalyzing the path towards deep decarbonization.

For individuals in the UCSF community, Haya concluded by stressing, “The very best thing you can do is invest in reducing your own emissions, such as electrifying your home.