Is It Time To Re-Think Additionality?

Posted on October 14, 2015 by Wendy B. Jacobs

Many organizations have announced voluntary greenhouse gas emission reduction goals by which they aim to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases despite the absence of any legal requirement to do so.  Meeting these goals implicates the concept of additionality when the goals are to be met, in part, through off-site actions, such as the purchase of carbon offsets, retirement of renewable energy credits, or construction of off-site renewable energy projects.  The concept of additionality seems simple: in principle, emission reductions attributable to an organization’s actions should only be recognized or “counted” if such reductions are more than what would have been achieved absent the action.  Applying the concept of additionality in the real-world, however, is complicated. Perhaps unnecessarily so? 

First, the “proof” of additionality required by many of the certifying bodies can be confusing and conflicting.  For the faint of heart, the concern about proof discourages any action other than the purchase of “certified” paper offsets.  A second, confounding problem results from the greening of the grid itself.  Emissions have been falling for many organizations simply because the electricity they procure from the grid is becoming less carbon intensive.  How to square these emission reductions with the concept of additionality leads one to question how the concept of additionality should be applied to voluntary emission reduction goals. 

In the context of regulated organizations, the idea of additionality makes sense.  Organizations that must comply with a regulatory scheme to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases should not be allowed to claim credit for off-site actions if such actions do not, in fact, lower emissions beyond what they would have been absent the organization’s actions.  No organization (regulated or unregulated) wants to waste money paying for off-site actions that do not in fact lower emissions.  Establishing that a particular organization’s action will, in fact, lower emissions more than would have occurred absent that organization’s action turns out to be much more difficult than it at first appears given the multiplicity of variables that come into play:   who else might be inclined to take the same action?  When?  For what reason? Is the action occurring in an area governed by a renewable portfolio standard or not?  Many different criteria are used by regulatory agencies and voluntary verification programs.  Three examples are helpful.

The California Air Resources Board treats emission reductions as “additional” if they exceed what would be required by law or regulation and if they exceed what would “otherwise occur in a conservative business-as-usual scenario.”  17 CCR § 95802(a)(4).  The American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (“ACUPCC”) replaces “conservative business-as-usual” with “reasonable and realistic business-as-usual.” The Verified Carbon Standard adds a requirement that the reductions are additional only if they would not have occurred “but for” the offsite organization’s investment.  These different definitions have real consequences for the types of offset projects (i.e., emission reductions) qualifying as “additional.”  Energy efficiency projects at a school in an economically disadvantaged city might count as additional under ACUPCC’s definition because the schools are unlikely to undertake the energy efficiency measures themselves.  In contrast, such measures are unlikely to count as additional under the Verified Carbon Standard definition because the schools would save money from the efficiency measures if undertaken by themselves.

For unsophisticated organizations with limited resources, using the most conservative criteria for additionality that have been developed by other parties, whether regulatory agencies or voluntary verification programs, makes sense – emission reductions are assured and at minimal transactional cost to the organization.  For more sophisticated organizations with resources to experiment and innovate, strict adherence to conservative additionality criteria can be counterproductive.  Many large municipalities, large research universities and corporations have the in-house capacity to invest in bold and innovative experiments and to assess whether a given project or investment is in fact reducing emissions. Organizations such as these could use their in-house talent and money to develop creative, bold, innovative and novel projects that could reduce emissions, but will they do so if such projects might fail a strict additionality test?  At a university, such projects have the added benefit of complementing the core mission to teach, research, and demonstrate ideas that others beyond the university could leverage.  Should an organization abstain from pursuing such projects simply because they would fail a strict additionality test, which the organization is not legally obligated to apply?  Should we re-think the circumstances in which strict observance with additionality is necessary to avoid a public relations nightmare (i.e. being accused of not really meeting the voluntary goal)?

The application of additionality in the context of voluntary goals is also complicated by the fact that the electric grid itself is becoming greener.  Most organizations include in their greenhouse gas emission calculation the emissions resulting from their electricity consumption.  Many organizations first announced their voluntary emission reduction goals five to ten years ago when few predicted that the electric grid would become significantly greener so fast.  Here in Massachusetts, largely because of the increased use of natural gas, the electric grid now emits 20% less carbon dioxide per MWh consumed than it did ten years ago.  That means that an organization in Massachusetts that has not taken any action designed to reduce its emissions will nevertheless have lowered its emissions by consuming electricity from the local grid.  Crediting such emission reductions towards a voluntary goal is in tension with the concept of additionality because the reductions occurred without the need for the organization to take any action designed to reduce its emissions.   

Hence, the greening of the grid should cause an organization to re-think the nature of its voluntary emission reduction goal:  is the goal simply an accounting objective that can be met by actions external to the organization, such as the greening of the grid by electric utilities, or is it a a bigger, perhaps even moral, commitment to undertake a minimum level of effort to reduce emissions in addition to those resulting from the greening of the grid?  If the former, an organization committed to a voluntary goal can celebrate that the utilities have made its commitment cheaper to attain.  If the latter, perhaps an organization should make its goal even more stringent to avoid taking credit for emission reductions achieved by others.  Is this second approach more consistent with the concept of additionality?  Should we applaud an organization that is not required by law to make any emission reductions but that purchases some carbon offsets and declares it has accomplished its voluntary goal of emission reductions?  Should we applaud an organization that designs, invests in or otherwise makes an effort to create a project that actually achieves emission reductions even though it is possible that someone somewhere might also have the same idea and be willing to make the same investment?

I do not pretend to have the answers to these questions.  But, I do know that many organizations that have set voluntary goals are grappling with these questions now, and others will face them in the future.  I welcome your comments.