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May 4, 2021

Transparency in Carbon Offsets: Carbon Neutral Milk?

A few days ago I heard an ad on my local NPR station that one of our local supermarkets now carries carbon neutral milk. I was intrigued.

I emailed the supermarket. The same day (WOW!) I received a lengthy email back from Ann Radil, Head of Carbon Reduction at a company called "Neutral" at eatneutral.com. Despite the broad-sounding name, the company focuses totally on milk and derivative products like Half and Half.

I'm a bit skeptical of today's offset markets, and 33 years after my work on the first carbon offset project in 1988, I really wonder whether by 2021 we shouldn't have moved beyond the use of offsets. The answer to that is clearly yes . . . but the reality also is that today's climate policies are nowhere close to seriously tackling climate change (I'm talking about today, not policy commitments decades into the future). That creates an opening for the continued use of carbon offsets.

footprints made of grass, one brown grass one green

Having worked on that first offset project (agroforestry in Guatemala), and having taken the first company carbon neutral in 1996 (Stonyfield Farm Yogurt), I've thought a lot about issues relating to carbon neutrality. I'm confident that Neutral is a company trying to do the right thing to deal with climate change, and my conversation with Ms. Radil got me to thinking about what I would like to see when I visit the website of any company claiming to be or headed for carbon neutrality or "net zero." 

So here goes. In the points below, I do not intend in any way to pick on the folks at Neutral. I doubt there's any organization that would perform particularly well against this list!

  1. 1
    I'd like to find information about the company's carbon footprint. In the case of Neutral, there is no information. The website notes they're working with a global expert on the footprint of dairy products, which is great, but that's as far as it goes. Well, that's not entirely true. In the products section they list the footprint of each product in lbs of CO2 per pint or gallon; that's great, but there could be a more sophisticated discussion.
  2. 2
    I'd like to find information on the company's plans to reduce its carbon footprint, and what it thinks can be accomplished. I'd also like to find out how the company promotes these ideas within its industry so that these plans can become best practices across the industry as quickly as possible.
  3. 3
    I'd like to find information about the internal carbon price the company uses in its decision-making. 
  4. 4
    I'd like to find information about the offsets the company is using to zero out its carbon footprint. In the Neutral case, there is no information beyond a discussion of the sector they're pulling offsets from (dairy farms). There are three offset organizations that have logos on the website, one of which has a considerably stronger reputation than the other two, so the takeaway message is not clear. But there's no information about which offset standard they are using, much less any information about the offset projects themselves. I'd like to see a lot more information, and at least a link to the offset project documentation. I'd also like to see how the company is encouraging the practices that are generating carbon offsets to become common practice, at which point they'd no longer be able to qualify to generate offsets. Companies should actively work to change sector policies so as to eliminate future offsets from the same activities and sector.
  5. 5
    I'd like to know how the offsets scored on a scale of 1-1000. I'll admit this is a bit unrealistic, since there is no such scoring system in common use. But such a scoring system has been around for many years; my team developed it when I was a Director at EcoSecurities 15 years ago. But because scoring offsets would be an existential threat to a substantial fraction of the market, no one ever picked it up. Wouldn't it be great if organizations really committed to doing the right thing with respect to offsets picked up the scoring ball and ran with it?
  6. 6
    I'd like to see people visiting the website of a company claiming to be carbon neutral being educated about climate change. The Neutral website, for example, seems to take that for granted, which probably isn't sufficient. Public education remains critical!
  7. 7
    I'd like to see people visiting the website being informed that offsets (and carbon neutrality) aren't enough to seriously tackle climate change. It would be great if a carbon-neutral company would encourage customers to get involved in tackling climate change in a variety of other ways.
  8. 8
    I'd like to see a strong statement in favor of local, regional, national, and international climate policies and information to consumers about how they can promote those policies.

That list seems long enough for now. What am I missing, and what might not belong on the list?

Here's the bottom line: as long as companies are going to use offsets and attempt to gain market advantage through the use of offsets, shouldn't we set the "expectations bar" considerably higher than we are today?



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Mark Trexler


Mark has more than 30 years of regulatory and energy policy experience. He has advised clients around the world on climate change risk and risk management. He is widely published on business risk management topics surrounding climate change, including in the design and deployment of carbon markets. Mark has served as a lead author for the IPCC and holds advanced degrees from the University of California at Berkeley.

  • Terrific post. Net-zero is necessary, but will not be sufficient to stop climate change, much less return climate to the beneficial conditions the world experienced during the 20th century. And with climate change affecting the global carbon cycle, great care will need to be taken that carbon offsets will persist through inevitable future warming–a point you might add to your list of good practices to describe.

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