A multifaceted approach to carbon offsets

Laura Beaumont
3 May 2023

Tackling carbon emissions is top of the agenda at Helical. In May 2022 we published our Net Zero Carbon Pathway setting out the steps we will be taking to fulfil our commitment to becoming net zero by 2030. As a property company, we recognise the critical role our industry has to play in global decarbonisation and the substantial changes that need to be made in order that the goals of the Paris Agreement can be met. The built environment is currently responsible for 39% of global energy related carbon emissions; 28% from operational emissions, from energy needed to heat, cool and power buildings, and the remaining 11% from material usage, waste and construction.

At Helical, we are advocates of a retrofit first (but not retrofit only) approach and are focusing on a development pipeline of “carbon friendly new builds”, each scheme having a dedicated Carbon Champion whose sole objective will be to drive down embodied carbon and increase renewable energy technologies to create low carbon buildings in operation. This individual will be appointed at the earliest design stage to ensure that carbon reduction is at the forefront of each project from the outset. However, while we are well placed to develop lower carbon buildings, to deliver truly net zero carbon buildings by 2030 ourselves and our peers will have to rely on carbon credits to offset any residual carbon balances. Entering the world of carbon credits presents a number of challenges and navigating the types of credits, location and integrity of projects needs significant consideration. 

The voluntary carbon market, the market whereby consumers can voluntarily choose to offset their emissions, is estimated to be worth $2 billion and is expected to balloon to $40 billion by 2030. With such substantial growth, it is no surprise that carbon is a “big money” business with a plethora of new entrants wanting a piece of the pie. There is, however, ever increasing criticism of carbon markets and concerns have long been raised about the authenticity of carbon credits traded on the voluntary market, the transparency of the trading process, and the potential risks to environmental integrity. With enhanced scrutiny of this under-regulated market, it is no surprise that in 2022, after a 9 month investigation, it was found that 90% of rainforest carbon offset schemes offered by Verra, the world’s leading certifier, were largely worthless, and could actually be making global warming worse.

We want to be offsetting in the “right” way, but as it stands there is no clear direction from either the Government or directly from the sector on what the right way might be. Could the solution be to focus on UK only projects, particularly nature-based solutions that can demonstrate not just carbon benefits but also opportunities to create synergies between climate change, biodiversity, and societal agendas? Nature can be our ally in tackling both climate change mitigation and adaptation, through processes such as carbon sequestration, greenhouse gas reduction, flood risk reduction, ecologically connected landscapes and better urban environments. With more locally based projects, can we create better integrity and critically, where a lack of funding exists at a public level, can private capital be the driver for change allowing these types of projects to get off the ground?

While holistically this could be the answer, the verification of UK projects is very much in its infancy.  The UK currently has an established peatland and woodland carbon code but the majority of credits available cannot be used in net zero carbon claims and instead act as an investment for the reduction of future carbon emissions. This does not solve how we can offset emissions for the developments we are delivering today. As anticipation mounts for the publication of the first UK Net Zero Carbon Building Standard expected later in the year, we are hopeful that guidance on the types of acceptable offsets that can be used will be clearly defined. However, as the current UKGBC guidance sets out, we may find that this simply contains a recommendation for only using verified credits from a recognised scheme. i.e. the schemes that have been found to be trading seriously questionable carbon credits.

At Helical, we live by our values; Integrity, Excellence, Collaboration, Dynamic, Creative and Sustainable. We will be keeping these values in mind when we define our approach to carbon offsetting. We would rather deliberate for longer, investigate further and scrutinise at a deeper level than commit ourselves prematurely and risk participating in green-washing. Our focus will continue to be on decarbonising our current activities, supporting our supply chain and using pioneering technology to deliver better lower carbon buildings.

For further information:

  • Laura Beaumont
    Head of Sustainability
    Tel 020 7629 0113