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Jessica F. Green is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto who is cross-appointed to the School of the Environment.

Last week, the University of Toronto announced that most university-funded air travel will be subject to a carbon-offset fee based on the distance travelled. Carbon offsets, which aim to balance out greenhouse-gas emissions by investing in activities that reduce or remove carbon, have become increasingly popular.

But offsets won’t help green the university. This new policy is yet another example of an organization trying to pay its way out of climate change, instead of making the necessary long-term investments in systemic transformation that we urgently need.

The use of offsets is highly problematic, for several reasons. There is ample evidence that many carbon offsets – particularly those not regulated by governments – are of dubious quality. A considerable body of scholarly research and investigative reporting shows that many offsets do not produce the promised reductions, often thanks to creative accounting. What’s more, because of the lack of regulation, many of these low-quality offsets stay in circulation, becoming what CarbonPlan calls “zombie” offset credits.

The vast majority of carbon offsets also only remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere temporarily – as long as the trees planted remain standing, or wind power is generated from turbines financed by an offset project. Some of these “nature-based” offsets are increasingly at risk of becoming sources of greenhouse gas emissions, rather than sinks, owing to the growing threats of drought, fires and pathogens. By contrast, offsets that remove emissions, which turn carbon dioxide into solid form and/or sequester it for centuries or millennia, make up only 3 per cent of the unregulated offset market. These permanent removals come much closer to a real solution, but they are both scarce and much more expensive than the temporary offsets.

Ultimately, offsets are not a solution to the climate crisis. They help well-meaning actors feel better about a dangerous status quo, while less well-meaning actors greenwash their continued contributions to the climate crisis. Even Pope Francis has condemned offsets as “a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.” Individual consumptive choices cannot take the place of politics. Decarbonizing the economy cannot be achieved through the market alone – an energy transformation must come from governments.

Instead of focusing on offsets, the University of Toronto should devote its resources to promoting systemic changes that will actually speed the energy transition. The University Pension Plan (UPP), of which U of T is a part, now manages almost $12-billion in assets. While UPP plans to be net-zero by 2040, it still has between $40-million to $85-million in fossil-fuel public-equity investments. The UPP also still holds coal investments, and has not announced any concrete plan to divest from them.

The university’s leadership should work with other universities and the UPP to phase out fossil-fuel investments – especially coal – as quickly as possible. By postponing divestment, the university is simultaneously funding the fossil-fuel industry and seeking to abate its effects – spending more money to work at cross-purposes with itself. A much simpler solution would be to wind down investments in emissions-generating activities as quickly as possible by withdrawing financial support for them. Faculty from four universities participating in the UPP have already outlined a plan for how to achieve this.

The University of Toronto has promised to divest its endowment and all indirect investments in fossil fuels by 2030. However, there is still progress to be made. The federated colleges – St. Michaels, Trinity and Victoria – have separate endowments totalling more than $600-million, and they have not made a similar divestment pledge. Moreover, the University of Toronto has stated that it has already divested from all direct investments in fossil fuels, but given the lack of transparency around holdings, it is difficult to ascertain which assets have been sold and which still remain, as well as the carbon emissions associated with the remaining assets.

Finally, the University of Toronto could use the monies spent on offsets to help students, faculty and staff to permanently change their behaviour by subsidizing bike and car shares and negotiating deeper discounts for student fares on the TTC and GO Transit. With nearly 100,000 students and more than 25,000 faculty and staff, a university-led shift to public transportation could have a meaningful effect on emissions, providing much-needed revenue and ridership to Ontario’s transit systems, which would in turn reduce car traffic and congestion.

In short, there are options – all of them better than offsets that fail to deliver the energy transformation that the climate crisis demands.

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