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BLOG: National forest credits are good for the airline industry

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Most frequent fliers are already familiar with the concept of offsetting the climate emissions caused by their travel, writes, Eron Bloomgarden.

At checkout, you are offered the opportunity to balance your portion of the flight’s emissions by supporting some sort of emission reduction programme, like tree planting.

Such programmes are voluntary and have proved popular with consumers. But they have also courted controversy.

 Air travel remains the most carbon intensive mode of transportation. Offsetting programmes have drawn criticism as diverting attention from emission reductions in the industry, and with no rules on what constitutes a ‘real’ offset, consumers are left questioning whether their checkout purchases are making a difference.

However, change is on the horizon. In 2016, ICAO approved the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, known by its acronym CORSIA, to ensure carbon-neutral industry growth beginning in 2021.

Airlines with flights originating or landing in a participating country are required to decarbonise faster or buy credits from emissions reductions elsewhere.

Only the very best credits, which comply with a detailed set of requirements, count. Airlines thus help reduce global emissions now, at scale, while building solutions (aircraft efficiency, low-carbon jet fuel, electric airplanes, etc) to decarbonise the future. 

As in many other areas, COVID disrupted plans. Over the summer, the 36 countries sitting on the ICAO Council eased airlines’ obligation to offset their emission growth until at least 2023.

The Council also agreed that the baseline against which emissions would be measured would be based on 2019 emissions, rather than the average of 2019 and 2020 emissions, as was meant to be the case.

Despite this, airlines from 88 countries representing close to 80% of international air travel have joined the CORSIA’s first phase. And airlines will still need to purchase up to 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon credits by 2035, representing a tremendous pool of funding to combat climate change.

Because of the size of this future demand, and the CORSIA’s use of rigorous rules, it’s no surprise that those who follow carbon markets keep a close eye on what credits get accepted into the programme.

Until recently, the CORSIA had not accepted any credits generated from forest protection, despite the fact that global forest loss contributes approximately 20% of the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

If we don’t find a way to halt tropical deforestation, it will be impossible to meet our global climate goals. And this says nothing of the impact that deforestation has on global health, rural communities and biodiversity.

However, this changed in November when the ICAO Council accepted two approaches that generate carbon credits from reduced deforestation, but only those supporting ‘jurisdictional-scale’ programmes.

The decision acknowledges that protecting and restoring tropical forests can contribute up to one-third of the climate action the world needs over the next decade, but only if supported by private sector capital at scale.

A “jurisdictional-scale” forest protection program is a country-wide and government-led forest protection programme. Only by working across millions, rather than thousands, of hectares, using the tools available to governments, can we be sure emissions reductions are real and that deforestation isn’t shifted elsewhere.


Investments in local, small-scale forest conservation projects, while important, are not sufficient on their own to stop deforestation, even if well-designed and successful.

To make the impact at the scale needed, tropical forest protection needs to happen at the national level, working with governments and policymakers, who with the right funding and incentives, can commit to robust, national- or state-level forest protection programmes.

From a pragmatic perspective, large-scale forest protection programs are the only way to generate the billions of credits needed to match the demand from the airline industry and other sectors. 

And air travellers care about rainforests. Protecting tropical forests is vital to pandemic prevention. Cherished ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest, or orangutan habitat in South East Asia, resonate deeply with the public.

The CORSIA’s decision means airlines and their patrons can contribute to these highly emotive efforts, rather than just offering customers the chance to plant a handful trees here and there.

Travellers will also take comfort in knowing that the programme deliver immediate and concrete results, as opposed to new trees, which can take up to decades to deliver their full climate benefits.

Long-story short: national forest credits are good for the airline industry. But we still face a significant challenge. To date, government-led efforts have been hampered by uncertainty that there is enough demand to compensate for the significant up-front financial and political capital required to get such efforts off the ground.

Airlines and air travellers can play an important role in breaking this logjam by joining other leading corporate voices in expressing their support and demand for national forest credits.

Air travel is not going away, and national forest credits offer airlines the most effective opportunity for near-term action as they accelerate work on longer-term solutions.

It’s in the interest of airlines, the climate, and the forests themselves to help these programmes succeed.

About the author
Eron Bloomgarden is executive director of Emergent, which is the global forest coalition of Rockefeller Foundation, EDF and the Norwegian government.

 

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