GM, US companies lead way on corporate carbon offsets

GM, US companies lead way on corporate carbon offsets

Recent news that corporations are largely responsible for elevating last year’s carbon offset market to a three-year high appears to reverse a long-standing trend.

Leading the way in these voluntarily purchases are US companies such as General Motors, which could be part of a growing momentum that paves the way for others to follow.

This upward trend among US companies appears to be what’s behind the report’s revelation that the US was the world’s largest single-country purchaser of voluntary offsets in 2011.

Issued by the Forest Trends’ Ecosystem Marketplace initiative and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the "State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2012" report revealed that the corporate sector purchased close to 65 percent of the more than $576 million in offset transactions in 2011 – a greater share of purchases than any other sector.

And despite the lack of U.S. climate regulations, “the trend has been up on voluntary market action, and shows no signs of abating,” said Todd Jones, the climate manager with the Center for Resource Solutions’ green-e program which certifies retail carbon offset programs.

David Tulauskas, director of sustainability for General Motors (NYSE: GM), believes the reason behind many U.S. businesses to purchase offsets is due to corporate social responsibility.

“We recognize that we have an impact on the world and the communities in which we operate,” Tulauskas said, “and we’re trying to get ahead of that.”

Tulauskas points to the commitment made by his company’s Chevrolet division to invest up to $40 million dollars in projects aimed at reducing up to eight million metric tons of carbon dioxide. He sees this as a sign of the growing momentum of additional efforts to control carbon emissions.

“Our intent is not to use this as an offset, [but] to support our commitment to reduce our carbon intensity from our facilities,” he said.

Microsoft's recently announced quest to achieve carbon neutrality in the upcoming fiscal year is also part of the growing momentum in the US to purchase voluntary carbon offsets. Using money from fees the company will charge to business groups that incur carbon emissions, Microsoft plans to create an internal investment fund to purchase renewable energy and offsets.

Photo of tree growing from pile of coins by Arkady via Shutterstock

Lack of US regulation and the market

Tulauskas said that GM is thinking about the offset market in relation to the lack of current US climate regulations. “It’s uncertain. We’d like to have certainty, and I do anticipate that there will be carbon-related policies and regulations in the US,” he said.

Tom Rawls, vice president for sales and marketing with Vermont-based NativeEnergy, doesn’t see the offset market as being driven by concerns over future regulation.

“Most of the buyers are unlikely to be regulated entities in the future,” said. Rawls' company provides carbon offsets, renewable energy credits and other carbon management services for a variety of corporate clients – including Ben & Jerry’s, eBay, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Esurance and National Geographic.

“They aren’t utilities and many of them aren’t large manufacturers,” Rawls said. “A lot of the carbon they’re addressing is not likely to come under cap and trade. Cap and trade tends to go upstream and address emissions at the source. You’re talking about power plants, oil refineries, entities like that.”

Connecting with consumers

Jones thinks that consumer recognition could also be part of the reason behind the rise in corporate carbon offset purchases. “This may be in response to consistent demand on the part of their consumers to see business leadership on climate and corporate responsibility in general,” he said.

While the report notes that some corporate buyers are using offsets to meet their sustainability goals and green-up supply chains, others use them to connect with consumers and employees.

“It is a challenge to really connect carbon to the average consumer,” said GM’s Tulauskas. ”This is another great learning opportunity for Chevrolet...there still needs to be a lot of education down to the local, individual, consumer level.”

“I think offsets remain an effective tool and many businesses, many organizations involved in sustainability remain deeply concerned about climate,” said Rawls.

“Corporate sustainability continues to expand and get addressed more seriously,” he said. “You can’t have a sustainability program without focusing on energy – and energy immediately takes you to carbon.”