Offset options to achieve net zero by 2030

Devon County Council (DCC) set a net zero target by 2030, and is implementing a carbon reduction plan to reduce its emissions by 70 per cent. This leaves about 116,300 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) to offset at 2030/31 and beyond.


Our preferred offset type is certified nature-based solutions in Devon i.e.  woodland creation or upland peat restoration as the only habitats covered by certification standards – the Woodland and Peatland Carbon Codes. The County Council has trialled various routes to attain these and found that carbon credits from Devon or even UK projects are unlikely to be available for 2030.

This case study covers the options trialled and next steps.

The challenge

DCC declared a climate emergency in 2019 and is addressing climate change across Devon through the Devon Climate Emergency Partnership. It is committed to tackling its own emissions through its Environmental Policy:

“Demonstrated by the priorities of its 2021 – 2025 Strategic Plan, Devon County Council (DCC) understands its responsibility to play its part in addressing the global climate and ecological emergency declared locally. The Authority aims to be net-zero carbon by 2030.”

We know we won’t be able to reduce/eliminate all emissions by 2030 due to operational, technical and financial constraints and therefore DCC’s Carbon Reduction Plan (CRP) proposes offsetting the remainder. This is about 12,500 tCO2e from our corporate activities and 103,800 from our suppliers based on a projection of our footprint.

To gain experience of the effectiveness of these mechanisms, and to assist in the stimulation of a market for carbon offsetting opportunities, the CRP expects an increasing proportion of corporate emissions to be offset between 2019/20 and 2030/31, from 5 per cent to 100 per cent.  

The council stipulated that it wants to use offsetting in Devon as an opportunity to enhance the natural environment to help address the closely related ecological crisis and develop economic opportunities related to offsetting locally. The use of overseas offsetting should be avoided. Offsetting must also be from verified schemes.  

Funding was provided to purchase offsets from verified providers for the years 2019/20 (£16,500), 2020/21 (£27,700) and 2021/22 (£44,600). From 2022/23 onwards, the anticipated approach was for DCC to be undertaking verified planting on newly-acquired land. 

The solution

DCC’s preferred offset type is nature-based solutions in Devon. In this way the twin emergencies – climate change and biodiversity are addressed – and the considerable co-benefits stay in Devon. However, having trialled a variety of different approaches, it is proving difficult to meet this brief.

We have trialled four approaches:

  • buying on the open market
  • buying direct from the Woodland Trust
  • buying through the (North Devon) Biosphere Foundation’s Natural Capital Marketplace
  • buying land and planting our own trees.
Buying on the open market

In February 2021 we attempted to purchase either Woodland or Peatland Carbon Units or Pending Issuance Units (PIUs) on the open market via a Request for Quotation (RfQ) advertised on the South West Councils procurement portal. A Carbon Unit is 1 tCO2e that has already been stored and verified. PIUs are essentially the promise of Carbon Units to come once the trees have grown or the peatland has matured.

The RfQ offered £44,000 in return for as many units as brokers could provide from their relationships with woodland and peatland owners. Eight carbon brokers viewed the RfQ but we received no bids.

We spoke informally to local experts on carbon markets in the charitable sector at the North Devon Biosphere Reserve, the Devon Wildlife Trust and the Woodland Trust, who advised us that:

a) Very few projects were planted and registered long enough ago to be yielding Carbon Units now i.e. around 15 years ago, as trees sequester significant amounts of carbon between Year 15 and Year 65 of planting.

b) The commercial market is speculating about carbon prices rocketing in the next few years and therefore they don’t want to sell Carbon Units or PIUs now. The price we were expecting the commercial market to offer was between £15 and £40 (based on conversations with local experts referenced above).

Buying direct from the Woodland Trust

We instead purchased PIUs from The Woodland Trust. The Woodland Trust only sell carbon to organisations, which meet their ethical criteria – principally not to be involved in fossil fuel extraction with a carbon account and carbon reduction target. As a charitable organisation, WT sells PIUs to raise funds to further their purpose of planting more trees. The newly planted woodland is in Scotland and a small number of Carbon Units will be available before 2030 but with the bulk maturing between 2030 and 2040. 

Buying from the Natural Capital Marketplace

In 21/22, the North Devon Biosphere Foundation’s Natural Capital Marketplace had been set up and, with the ambition to assist with the creation of new habitat closer to home, we bought PIUs based on expected carbon sequestration of their planned projects in Devon. Most of the planting will take place in 22-23 and therefore the Carbon Units will not be available until after 2032-33 at the earliest.

Buying land

We have also trialled a more direct approach by buying 28 acres (11 hectares) of improved grassland in Devon in 2021-22 (see photograph). It is planned to apply for Woodland Creation Grant and plant trees in the 2023-24 planting season to create a broad-leaved woodland called Brook Wood. It lies adjacent to a Forestry Commission wood, which is possibly a Plantation on Ancient Woodland Site (PAWS) increasing the benefit of planting by expanding existing habitat and providing space for natural colonisation.

Land for sale is scarce and expensive and it is not easy to find land under £10k an acre. We were lucky to buy this land at about £7,500 an acre and the total costs of the project are estimated to be £217,000 net of the England Woodland Creation Offer grant. From the Woodland Carbon Code calculator it is estimated that the woodland will generate about 50 Carbon Units at year 10 at a cost of about £4,000 per Unit. Obviously, the cost per Unit comes down as the trees sequester more – it is about £65 at year 100 – which starts to look like a better deal.

The first Carbon Units from this project will be available in 2032-33 at the earliest. We could certify before but would not realise much carbon from younger trees. Whilst this project has other benefits, such as supporting the rural economy, biodiversity and potentially public access, DCC has responsibility for project management, liability and risk for the management of the land and trees with limited staff capacity.

Carbon accounting

Carbon accounting rules are laid down by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and these are strict around offsets to avoid double-counting and “green-washing”. We can include this statement for third party PIUs:

“DCC has purchased [XXXX] Pending Issuance Units from Project [Name/Number] representing tonnes of carbon dioxide which are expected to be sequestered over the next [XX] years to [date]. These units, if verified, will compensate for X[X]tCO2e/[X]% of our planned emissions over the same period and we plan to reach net zero emissions by 2030.”

And this one for Brook Wood:

“DCC has created Brook Wood to reduce the net greenhouse gas balance of our estate/business.  The project has listed [XXXX] Pending Issuance Units representing tonnes of carbon dioxide which is expected to be sequestered between [Start and End Date], helping us with our transition to Net Zero emissions by 2030.”

DCC cannot make a claim to be net zero until the PIUs have been converted into Woodland Carbon Units through verification by an external auditor.

The impact

The investment that DCC has made so far has already supported woodland creation and tree-planting in the UK, which will have a measurable carbon sequestration. In addition, it has supported a local mechanism, which will enable landowners to capitalize on the growing market for Carbon Units and other ecosystem services – the Natural Capital Marketplace – in Devon and beyond.

How is the new approach being sustained?

DCC has put in place a team, senior governance and a process of annual reporting to address its carbon reduction targets. In addition, climate change is one of the authority’s strategic priorities in its new corporate strategy.

Lessons learned

These trials demonstrate how difficult it will be to achieve net zero in 2030 using nature-based solutions in Devon or the UK. It seems that Carbon Units will simply not be available in the quantity required. By identifying this issue early on, we can review our approach and are looking to:

  1. Identify ways to increase the carbon reduction target beyond 70% to minimize the need for offsetting even further.
  2. Investigate the potential for carbon offsets from energy efficiency and renewable generation projects.


Sarah Alsbury, Climate and Ecological Emergency Officer [email protected]