Avoiding double counting is crucial in credible carbon offsetting.
And high-quality carbon projects are a must in offsetting.
Why? Well, the question of ‘does carbon offsetting actually work’ is one that comes up a lot. And the answer is yes, but only if offsetting is done via buying carbon credits from these high-quality projects. It’s the only way you can be confident that real, lasting positive impact is being made.
So, double counting – and how to avoid it – is important to understand if you’re buying offsets.
In this article we cover:
In the simplest terms possible, double counting is what it sounds like – counting twice.
In carbon offsetting, then, double counting refers to when a carbon credit (and the climate impact it represents) is claimed by more than one entity.
That could be because two entities are claiming the same credit (often this happens due to country level carbon trading), or because the credit is issued multiple times by the issuer (either by accident/error or for financial gain) – we’ll explore the different types of double counting more in a moment.
Of course, if a carbon credit is claimed by more than one entity then this has huge implications for the carbon benefit made. A business could be buying 100 carbon credits to offset their carbon emissions for the year, but if those credits have already been claimed and accounted for elsewhere, their offsetting is actually having no impact.
You’ll also hear the opposite term being used – single counting.
Single counting means that a carbon credit has only been bought and claimed by one entity. This is how it should always be, as it means that the carbon benefit which the credit represents (1 carbon credit = 1 tCO2 avoided or removed) is accurate.
Let’s go back to those different types of double counting – claiming, issuing, counting.
Double claiming is when two entities count the same carbon credit towards their emissions reductions goals – typically a business and a country/government.
This is a particular problem with carbon trading between countries, wherein both the country buying carbon and the country selling it (i.e. a host country of a carbon project) include the emissions in their emissions calculations, leading to false carbon accounting.
Double claiming is highlighted within Article 6.2 of the Paris Agreement (which governs how country to country carbon trading works) for exactly this reason. The Article makes ‘corresponding adjustments’ a requirement to ensure double counting doesn’t occur – making it necessary for both buying and selling countries to document the trade and the corresponding change made to their carbon accounting, like you would see in a bank transfer.
This can also be an issue within carbon offsetting and the Voluntary Carbon Market.
Instead of two countries, it’s typically:
Double issuing is when more than one carbon credit is issued to represent the same carbon benefit i.e. tonne of emissions avoided or removed.
This can be accidental – an error within the process of issuing and tracking carbon credits results in a credit being issued multiple times.
Or, it could be deliberate – a dodgy project developer issuing the same carbon credit multiple times to gain financially.
Double using is when the same one issued carbon credit is used twice e.g. it is duplicated within a registry, and so can be sold and used more than one.
Like double issuing, this can be accidental or deliberate for financial gain.
In all instances, this is a big red flag for the quality of the carbon project.
Either there are issues with the processes by which carbon credits are issued, tracked, and sold, which puts the real world impact of the carbon credits at question.
Or the project developer cannot be trusted.
In all instances, a company offsetting via these carbon credits is actually making no real world impact – the planet is losing out, and they are at major risk of being called out for greenwashing.
The key takeaway? Businesses must have an exclusive claim to a carbon credit for it to be truly impactful.
So how do we ensure that’s the case? Let’s take a look at how high-quality carbon projects avoid double counting.
Project developers who are financing their project through the sale of carbon credits have a responsibility to make sure that the credits they sell are not being double counted.
They do that by:
But how do carbon buyers know which projects are actually doing this due diligence – what should they be looking out for when evaluating the quality of carbon projects in relation to double counting?
In terms of what carbon buyers can look for to find the projects ensuring that double counting cannot take place in their project, there are two sides to it:
Carbon projects types which cannot yet be certified via a carbon standard (i.e. early-stage techniques such as enhanced weathering, direct air capture, bio-oil sequestration which do not yet have standards set), should demonstrate how they are managing these things themselves.
Let’s take a closer look at both aspects.
If a carbon project has been verified by a carbon standard, double counting should have been taken into account in their verification process, with checks to ensure double counting can’t take place. This information will then be publicly available via the documentation created through the verification process, giving confidence to carbon buyers.
For example, Gold Standard has set guidelines on double counting, which stipulate that whilst they are verifying carbon projects they must:
For carbon projects which cannot yet be certified via a carbon standard there should be evidence that the developer is undergoing this due diligence themselves. In these cases, transparency is key – the information about their process for ensuring double claiming is not an issue should be easily available via their website or documentation, and they should be happy to engage and answer any questions.
In terms of avoiding double issuing, wherein a single carbon credit is issued to multiple buyers (accidentally or deliberately), it’s crucial that it’s easy to track carbon credits from being issued, through to being purchased, and their eventual retirement – this transparency and visibility ensures that it’s easy to identify if double issuing is taking place.
First, a quick overview of the carbon credit process for context:
1. Issuing: carbon credits are issued for a project based on the amount of carbon they will avoid or remove, with 1 credit equal to 1tCO2.
2. Selling: carbon credits are sold by the project developers – either directly to individuals or businesses, or to middlemen like carbon marketplaces or consultancies who sell them on to individuals/businesses.
3. Proof of sale: a carbon offset certificate is issued to the beneficiary of the carbon credits – the individual or company buying the credits. This should prove that they are the single owner of the carbon credit and the climate impact it represents.
4. Retiring: the carbon credit is retired to indicate that it has been used. This only takes place once the impact that the credit represents has actually taken place. Because of this, there are a few different types of carbon credits and timelines for retirement which you’ll come across:
For more detail on these types of carbon credits and their pros and cons, head to our article on the difference between ex-post, ex-ante, and pre-purchase carbon credits.
If a project is certified via a carbon standard, then this entire process should take place through the registry of the carbon standard – credits are issued, tracked, sold, attributed to the buyer, and retired through the registry, with open and accessible documentation of the whole lifecycle. This gives carbon buyers confidence that the carbon credits issued are single counted.
For example, the Verra registry, which is publicly available and lists all carbon credits issued for projects certified by Verra.
Delta Blue Carbon has been verified by Verra through their Verified Carbon Standard.
This means it’s listed in the Verra registry, and you can easily see all the carbon credits issued for the project, including those which have been sold to specific buyers and if/when they are retired.
If a project is not yet certified they won't have visibility in this way through the carbon standard and registry they work with.
So, they need to demonstrate that they have oversight and control over this process themselves, monitoring at every stage to ensure double issuing can never occur.
As with the previous point, transparency is everything – a high-quality project will have open, transparent communication about their process for issuing, tracking, selling, and retiring carbon credits themselves – if they don’t have this, it’s a red flag 🚩 🚩 🚩
Let’s take a look at how two high-quality, uncertified carbon projects approach this:
So, in summary, to avoid double counting, carbon buyers should look out for the below when evaluating carbon projects:
Projects that don’t have one or other of these, are best avoided 👋
We know this is a lot to take on – evaluating the quality of carbon projects isn’t easy. But it is crucial to ensure real impact is made through your carbon offsetting.
If you’re concerned about making the wrong choice we’d highly recommend working with a sustainability partner that has an established methodology for evaluating project quality and can help you choose the right carbon offsets – and keep track of those purchases openly.
As a starting point, take a look at how we evaluate carbon projects at Lune and explore our example Lune Sustainability Page to see how we help carbon buyers create an open record of their carbon purchases.
Lune will offer trusted, high-quality carbon projects to Visa’s global network of merchants, banks, and partners – working together with a goal to scale climate action.
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