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How the aviation sector’s carbon offset plans will undermine the Paris Agreement

A recent article by Kate Wheeling in Pacific Standard magazine highlights four ways that the aviation sector’s carbon market proposals could undermine the Paris Agreement. The article points out that, “as the rest of the world is cutting back, aviation’s climate plan includes increasing emissions.”

Jane Hupe is head of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s environmental unit – and if that isn’t an oxymoronic job title, I don’t know what is. Hupe describes ICAO’s disastrous plans to set up a carbon market and allow ever increasing emissions from aviation as a “gamechanger”.

Hupe managed to use the word “gamechanger” twice in a 10-minute-long presentation at COP22 in Marrakech last month.

In a typical example of its post-truth reporting, here’s how Ecosystem Marketplace referred to the Pacific Standard article in its monthly news round-up, “The Carbon Chronicle”:

Doubt over forest offsets

At least one environmental group is expressing concern that a new deal developed by the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization, which aims to guide the industry toward carbon neutrality, may actually undercut global efforts to reduce emissions. There is worry over double counting but largely people are concerned over what types of offsets ICAO’s program will accept. According to Nils Hermann Ranum of Rainforest Foundation Norway, forests are not permanent carbon vaults and therefore are one category that airlines shouldn’t use to offset their emissions. If tree deaths increase due to rising global temperatures, forests will release their carbon stocks back into the atmosphere running the risk of double emissions, Ranum said.

Read more at Pacific Standard Magazine.

Yes, the article quotes Nils Herman Ranum of Rainforest Foundation Norway, who is critical of using REDD credits to offset emissions from flying. But to then write that, “at least one environmental group is expressing concern” about ICAO’s offsetting plans is disingenuous.


In April 2016, more than 80 NGOs signed onto an international civil society statement opposing the aviation industry’s plans. The statement clearly opposes using REDD credits to offset the aviation sector’s ever-increasing emissions:

Forests and soils do not offset fossil fuel emissions

Land-based carbon offsets, such as from REDD+ type projects or from agriculture are particularly contentious, with greater risks for the climate.

By nature, REDD+ projects place restrictions on existing land use – that is how they generate the carbon savings sold as offset credit. Because the large majority of REDD+ projects (wrongly) blames deforestation on small-scale peasant farming, in particular where it involves shifting cultivation, such restrictions have a detrimental impact on peasant livelihoods and forest peoples’ way of life. By contrast, REDD+ projects that tackle the real drivers of large-scale deforestation – extraction of oil, coal, mining, infrastructure, large-scale dams, industrial logging and international trade in agricultural commodities – are by and large absent.


Kate Wheeling’s article in Pacific Standard lists four ways that ICAO’s offsetting plans are likely to undermine the Paris Agreement:

1. Worthless Carbon Credits Could Undermine the Market

ICAO has not yet agreed on what sort of carbon credits it will allow in its carbon market. According ICAO’s Hupe, it’s likely to be UNFCCC-approved credits.

That leaves the aviation sector wide open to the type of scandals delivered by the clean development mechanism, such as carbon credits for coal-fired power stations, and factories in India and China gaming the system by producing HFC-23 gas just so that they could claim carbon credits for the destroying the highly potent greenhouse gas.

Not to mention the impossible to solve problem of counterfactual baselines. Or the €5 billion EU carbon trading fraud, or the boiler room operations that have scammed people out of their life savings by selling them worthless carbon credits as investments, particularly in the UK.

2. Offsetting Emissions by Relying on Forests Won’t Work

Here’s an extract of what Wheeling wrote on this topic:

The problem, according to Nils Hermann Ranum, the head of policy and campaigns at Rainforest Foundation Norway, is that, while emissions can last forever, forests are not permanent carbon vaults. As rising temperatures increase the risk of tree death by drought or fire, forests become ever more likely to release their carbon stores back into the atmosphere.

“You risk having double emissions — from the fossil fuel that this airline company or whoever emitted, and they paid for a forest that the year after burned,” Ranum says. There’s also the issue of supply and demand, as there is a finite amount of land available for increasing forest areas. Airlines could wind up creating social conflict once space runs out, and they find themselves competing for land that people need to live on, and to farm.

As REDD-Monitor has repeatedly pointed out, there is a serious risk that as climate change gets more and more severe, the carbon stored in forests will be released to the atmosphere as forest fires increase.

3. Double Counting Credits Could Undermine the Paris Agreement

Here’s how Wheeling describes this problem:

The Paris Agreement includes a strong provision that carbon credits should not be double counted. In other words, countries that sell carbon credits cannot also count those reductions toward their climate goals. That provision, however, only applies to parties. So, in practice, any country could sell a carbon credit to an airline, and then count those emissions reductions toward its own reduction target—all without that country (“party”) being guilty, technically, of double counting.

In September 2016, FERN put out a briefing paper that points out that,

With the ICAO proposal running parallel to the Paris Agreement, there is a major risk that claimed reductions in emissions in general, and from deforestation in particular, will be counted twice. Countries might count them towards objectives in the Paris Agreement, while the aviation industry counts them as offsetting the growth of the aviation sector. Such double-counting would cheat the climate.

4. Offsetting Is Not a Permanent Solution

Here’s Wheeling, again:

Even once the mechanisms of the ICAO’s carbon market have been ironed out, airlines can’t offset forever. Carbon credit-producing projects are a finite resource. “It’s a gap filler for us,” Hype says—a placeholder policy while the industry attempts to scale up emerging technologies. “We want to fly with solar, we want to fly with water, we want to fly with mental power, but you have to get there.”

But, as Wheeler notes, time is running out. Rainforest Foundation Norway’s Ranum tells her that, “If the aviation industry continues increasing their emissions, other industries will need to have even steeper reductions.”

The problem with ICAO’s plans for a carbon market are nothing to do with the types of offsets that ICAO decides to accept. The problem is offsetting. ICAO plans to offset its emissions rather than reduce them.

As Kevin Anderson points out in a 2012 piece in Nature, after he refused to buy carbon credits to offset his emissions for taking part in a conference in the UK,

Offsetting is worse than doing nothing. It is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading and almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth.

Anderson adds that,

The promise of offsetting triggers a rebound away from meaningful mitigation and towards the development of further high-carbon infrastructures. The UK government’s purchase of offsets through the CDM and its simultaneous drive towards both additional airport capacity and the exploitation of UK shale-gas reserves are just two such examples. If offsetting is deemed to have equivalence with mitigation, the incentive to move to lower-carbon technologies, behaviours and practices is reduced accordingly.

Offsetting, on all scales, weakens present-day drivers for change and reduces innovation towards a lower-carbon future. It militates against market signals to improve low-carbon travel and video-conference technologies, while encouraging investment in capital-intensive airports and new aircraft, along with roads, ports and fossil-fuel power stations.


PHOTO Credit: Screenshot from FERN’s video “Airlines: Cheating the Climate?”

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