Some Pros and Cons of the National Air Quality Offsets Guideline

07 April 2016
By Danjelle Midgley, Candidate Attorney

The Air Quality Management Offset Guideline published on 18 March 2016 is aimed at providing a guide to industry, government, consultants, the general public and stakeholders regarding appropriate principles to be adhered to in assessing the need for and designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluation of air quality offsets.

Offsets have been discussed as an environmental management tool for over a decade but the publication of the Air Quality Offset Guideline first final national publication of such a guideline.

Several provinces have offset guidelines in draft or final form pertaining to biodiversity, wetlands, water and habitat offsets and in 2015, the DoE advertised a tender for the establishment of South Africa’s Carbon Offsets Administrative and Reporting System. The Draft National Biodiversity Offsets Policy Framework, produced by the South African National Botanical Institute (SANBI) in 2012, set out the draft parameters within which the development of provincial guidelines and institutional mechanisms must conform to ensure a coherent approach to the implementation of biodiversity offsets.

Offsets are a controversial environmental management tool both from a practical implementation perspective and from an ethical standpoint. On one hand they seem to offer an easy route to allowing sustainable development by offering some form of counterbalancing positive action by the developer in exchange for allowing environmentally negative impacts. On the other hand they allow developers and polluters to continue to degrade the environment by simply paying a price whilst further commodifying the environment.

In the Guideline, an offset is defined as an “intervention, or interventions, specifically implemented to counterbalance the adverse and residual environmental impact of atmospheric emissions in order to deliver a net ambient air quality benefit within, but not limited to, the affected airshed where ambient air quality standards are being or have the potential to be exceeded and whereby opportunities and need for offsetting exist.”

The aim is therefore to complement the current regulatory and enforcement framework and achieve “real, quantifiable and verifiable” air quality improvements. The Guideline provides a framework on how to apply for an offset when applying for an atmospheric emission license (AEL). Such an offset will be considered by the licensing authority as measure “to prevent, control, abate or mitigate pollution”, when deciding whether to issue an AEL as required by section 39(c) of NEM: AQA. 

The Guideline includes the following air quality offsetting principles:

  • outcome based;
  • no “like for like”;
  • transparency and acceptability;
  • complementarity;
  • sustainability; and
  • measurable and scientifically robust.


The Guideline also proposes circumstances where an air quality offset may be recommended (for instance during an application for postponement of compliance timeframes, variation of a license or in an area where the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) are being exceeded.

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