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While climate change wreaks havoc, airlines hide plans to double emissions behind a widely discredited scheme.

By Julia Christian

In Bonn last month delegates from around the world discussed how to implement the Paris Climate Change Agreement  – which aims to tackle the greatest threat currently facing the planet.

At exactly the same time almost 6,000 kilometres away in Montreal, representatives from the global aviation industry were hell-bent on undermining the Agreement’s aims.

The absurd scenario simultaneously playing out in different meeting rooms on different continents can be traced back to the 1997 climate talks in Kyoto.

Following industry lobbying, ICAO, the United Nation’s aviation agency, managed to ensure that emissions from international flights weren’t included in the national emissions inventories that every nation was required to regularly report. Instead countries were expected to work through ICAO to reduce emissions from aviation.

However, the latest incarnation of ICAO’s plans to make their industry ‘greener’ - which its members discussed in Montreal - beggars belief.

Before examining the nitty gritty of what ICAO wants to do, here’s a brief reminder of airlines’ mammoth role in driving climate change.

Just one person in five on the planet has ever even been on a plane -  which shows that while flying has become more common, it’s still an activity largely undertaken by the world’s wealthy,  (even in a rich country like the UK, nearly half the population didn’t fly at all in 2015).

Yet despite the fact that most flights are taken by a very small group of people,  international airlines want to use a  20 per cent of our global carbon allowance budget - that is, the maximum amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) scientists say we can release to avoid catastrophic climate change.

In October 2016, ICAO adopted a climate plan that claims to ensure “carbon neutral growth from 2020”.  But here’s the catch: this so-called “carbon neutral growth” in fact involves more than doubling emissions.

ICAO claims these emissions will be made carbon neutral with mass purchases of carbon offsets - in other words, paying someone else to prevent emissions elsewhere.

But carbon offsets, unfortunately, do little more than soothe our conscience. 

This is particularly true for forest offset projects – whose climate benefits are notoriously difficult to measure and guarantee. There are multiple cases of project implementers fiddling the numbers to pretend they are reducing emissions more than what would have happened anyway — and of projects where emissions have increased, not decreased, since implementation began. 

Third party auditors—who should prevent these things from happening—are paid by the offset companies themselves, and have often signed off on offset credits that are clearly unsound.  And many forest offset projects are in tropical countries where corruption and illegal deforestation is high, and virtually impossible for project implementers to control in the long run. 

If forest offsets don’t actually reduce emissions, they just being used to create an illusion of carbon-neutral flights — while overall emissions keep rising. As atmospheric CO2 spikes to record levels, international airlines are playing with fire. 

And that’s not all. Besides their role in locking in higher emissions levels, forest offsets have also attracted well-founded criticism for their threats to local people — who are sometimes excluded from their traditional lands in a misguided attempt to “conserve” the forest and offset someone else’s emissions. 

In Montreal discussions focussed on the criteria that ICAO will adopt for deciding which types of carbon offsets they will allow.

New research by Fern shows that forest carbon offsets consistently fail to meet the majority of these criteria—and that they are therefore at high risk of not actually reducing emissions.

We can see the dangers of forest carbon offsets in projects already being used by the aviation sector.

Fern analysed two projects offered by major international airlines to passengers wishing to make their flights “carbon neutral”– one in Oddar Meanchey, Cambodia (which Virgin Atlantic offers to passengers), and the other in Mai N’dombe, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (which Austrian Airlines and San Diego Airport offer to passengers). Not only have both projects caused serious human rights issues, they have also failed at their central goal of protecting forests—their claims to make flights “carbon neutral” are therefore an illusion. 

In Oddar Meanchay, the forest is being clear-cut and local people exploited or kicked off their land, while the Mai N’dombe project has seen deforestation increase since the project began.

Clear-cut forest within the Oddar Meanchey REDD+ project in Cambodia, sponsored by Virgin Atlantic.

 

Virgin Atlantic, which uses a carbon offsetting specialist called Natural Capital Partners to “offer customers the opportunity to reduce the carbon impact of their flight”, responded to Fern’s findings by saying that it had contacted Natural Capital Partners to investigate them, adding that the Oddar Meanchey scheme “is designed to help finance renewable energy and resource conservation projects”.

A spokeswoman for Natural Capital insisted that the Oddar Meanchey project “is validated to the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standard (CCB) and therefore meets its requirements, which are very specific regarding the respect for property rights, Free Prior and Informed Consent and customary tenure, use and access.”

Although on its website Austrian Airlines still offered its customers the chance to offset their flights through the Mai N’dombe project, a spokesperson told Fern: “We are well aware of the problems in relation to the Mai N´dombe project. Therefore this project is NOT among those sponsored by CO2-Compensations from our Customers. However, it is mentioned as a CO2-compensation-project by Climate Austria in 2016. Our partner KPC (Kommunalkredit Public Consulting) is managing Climate Austria & selecting the eligible projects.  Even though they are aware of the problems relating to Mai N’dombe it is unfortunately not feasible to remove it from the list right now, but KPC will of course remove it at the earliest opportunity.”

These schemes, however, are just illustrations of a far wider problem: forest carbon offsets can never guarantee permanent emissions reductions.  ICAO’s interest in buying up huge amounts of these offsets puts the credibility of their whole climate plan - and international climate action - at risk.  

Some policymakers seem at last to be waking up to the dangers of ICAO’s proposals.

At the Bonn climate summit, the EU, as well as numerous other countries, expressed the need for caution regarding carbon credits being bought by non-state actors such as ICAO. 

Their message must be heeded. To help combat climate change, ICAO must ban the use of forest offsets—and come up with a plan that actually reduces emissions, rather than trying to shift that responsibility on to people who didn’t cause the problem in the first place.