in Cambodia

Virgin Atlantic is offsetting its flights with carbon credits from the Oddar Meanchey REDD project in Cambodia. Despite the project’s failure to stop deforestation

There is no way of avoiding the fact that flying is a disaster for the climate. For individuals, there is no faster way of frying the planet. Nevertheless, international aviation is not included in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The organisation responsible under the UN system, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has so far taken no meaningful action to reduce emissions from aviation.

Last year, ICAO agreed a deal supposedly aimed at addressing the climate impacts of aviation. But the deal is meaningless.

Until 2020, aviation emissions will increase. ICAO promises us “carbon neutral growth from 2020”. This, of course, doesn’t mean reducing emissions from aviation.

Instead, ICAO proposes a massive new carbon trading scheme: the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).

ICAO is currently developing rules about what types of carbon offsets can be used under CORSIA.

Unearned credit

A recent report from Fern highlights the problems with offsetting emissions from the aviation sector. Titled, “Unearned credit: Why aviation industry forest offsets are doomed to fail”, the report focusses on forest offsets. The report includes case studies of two REDD projects that international airlines have used to offset flight emissions: Mai Ndombe in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and Oddar Meanchey in Cambodia.

Richard Branson’s carbon emitting business

Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, likes to talk about climate change. In September 2017, he was in New York speaking at the Climate Week Opening Ceremony. Last week he was in Paris for the One Planet Summit.

On his blog, Branson writes about “Thumping the table for united climate action”, and about “the need to take decisive action to tackle climate change before it is too late”.

But as Branson acknowledges, “Virgin is involved in a number of businesses that emit a lot of carbon”.

The Virgin Group includes several airline companies, which are responsible for millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases every year. In 2007, he launched Virgin America, and in 2012, Virgin Australia. Then there’s Virgin Galactic, the spaceflight arm of the Branson empire.

In 2006, Branson made a “firm commitment” to spend US$3 billion over the next ten years to develop a low carbon aviation fuel. In fact, he spent well under US$300 million, and failed to come up with a new biofuel.

Virgin Atlantic offers passengers the option to offset their flight emissions with carbon offsets bought from the Oddar Meanchey project.

Virgin Atlantic’s carbon offsetting problem

Fern’s report looks at the Oddar Meanchey project through the lens of ICAO’s criteria for carbon offset programmes.

Out of eight criteria, the Oddar Meanchey project fails on five. Two are dubious, and one is unknown.

The reality is that the REDD project has failed to protect the forests in Oddar Meanchey. There have been a series of land conflicts associated with the project, and the project has been unable to stop the Cambodian military from clearing forest in the project area.

SumOfUs has set up a petition to Virgin Atlantic, asking the company to stop misleading its customers and find real solutions to reduce its carbon emissions:

A spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic told the website Runway Girl Network that the company has “contacted Natural Capital Partners to investigate the claims made by Fern”. Natural Capital Partners is an offsetting company that was previously known as The CarbonNeutral Company, and before that Future Forests.

A spokeswoman from Natural Capital Partners told Runway Girl Network that the project is certified to the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standard. The spokeswoman said that the project was visited by an independent auditor to confirm that it is reducing deforestation.

But the project was verified under the CCB Standard in August 2013. And a great deal has happened since then.

The NGO that was running the project, Pact, ran out of funding in 2013. Microsoft walked away from buying carbon credits from the project. The Cambodian military bulldozed forest in the project area. The next audit is due sometime in 2018.

In January 2014, I asked two questions of Terra Global Capital, the company selling carbon credits from Oddar Meanchey:

  1. How can you sell carbon credits from a project where the Cambodian army is destroying the forest?
  2. How do you address leakage – the fact that deforestation in the province of Oddar Meanchey is continuing, outside the REDD project in community forest areas?

Leslie Durschinger, Managing Director of Terra Global Capital replied the following day. She didn’t answer either question. “I find your request for information to be more your preformulated answers than questions,” she wrote. “And we do not believe your formulation of the answers is correct.”

Full disclosure: REDD-Monitor has in the past received funding from FERN. Click here for all of REDD-Monitor’s funding sources.

PHOTO Credit: Shalmali Guttal, clearing of Community Forest in Beng Commune, Oddar Meanchey, 2012.

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