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Blog: Aviation industry's carbon offsetting plans keep flying into trouble

by Julia Christian

Keeping global warming below 1.5°C - which the Paris Agreement strives to – means fundamental changes for industries from energy to transport. Yet the aviation sector - one of the planet’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2) - is trying to avoid making changes.  If it were a country, aviation would be the world’s seventh largest emitter. So the challenge to reduce its emissions is urgent. The response so far from the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has been to actually propose an increase in flying.

ICAO released its plan to make aviation sustainable in September 2016. Instead of getting the sort of fanfare the Paris Agreement received, its plans were met with shock and horror. Despite small positive steps such as introducing more fuel-efficient planes, the main thrust of their plan was to use the widely discredited tools of offsetting and biofuels.

This can never be considered “green”.

ICAO claims it will “offset” its increased emissions through a Global Market Based Mechanism. It remains unclear where these offsets will come from. Given the huge number of credits airlines would need to purchase to meet these plans, many presume that the industry will focus on trees, which have long been seen as a source of cheap offsets. A handful of conservation organisations are even touting them as a solution to ICAO’s growth plans.

But there is one problem: forest offsets don’t work…

…aviation emissions are released by burning fossil fuels which have been storing carbon underground for millennia. This permanent increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere cannot be solved by a temporary storage in forests. As soon as trees burn or decay, they release the emissions right back into the air — and emissions keep rising.

Even if offsets did work, with less than five years left until global emissions put the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C temperature aspiration out of reach, we do not have the luxury of choosing between reducing emissions and protecting forests. We need to do both.

In addition, forest offset projects have a dubious history of displacing local communities from their land—despite international safeguards. Unjust offset projects leave rural people in poor countries — those least responsible for climate change — yet again paying the price for the consumption habits of a small class of people: only seven per cent of the world’s population fly.   

Finally, the size of the offsets required is completely unachievable. When countries signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, they made commitments to reduce their emissions, including by protecting and restoring their forests. When one looks at how much forest has already been counted as part of forested countries’ Paris Agreement commitments, there is virtually none left for airlines to use as offsets, and certainly not enough for the massive emissions increase they plan.  

The ICAO is meeting in October this year to decide which projects will be allowed as offsets under their Global Market Based Mechanism. One hundred NGOs have already agreed that forests must not be one of the options, even if this means giving up on ICAO’s dream of constant upward growth.