By Chris Lang
For several years, REDD-Monitor has been raising the alarm about the aviation industry’s crazy plans to increase its greenhouse gas emissions massively using carbon offsets as a substitute for meaningful action to address the climate crisis.
In November 2019, Andrew Penman, a journalist at The Mirror, interviewed REDD-Monitor about the aviation industry’s offsetting plans. The article came out under the headline, “Licence to pollute: the sham of carbon offsetting”.
The aviation industry calls its plan to fry the world the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).
Penman notes that the International Air Transport Association states that, “It is forecast that CORSIA will mitigate around 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 and generate over $40 billion in climate finance between 2021 and 2035.”
That assumes a price of carbon of US$8 in 2021, and US$20 in 2035. Yet in 2014, rich countries in the World Bank’s Carbon Fund stated that they would not pay more than US$5 for offsets under the Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility.
A far more serious problem, obviously, than the amount of money involved is the fact that burning fossil fuels is driving the climate crisis. And CORSIA allows the aviation industry to continue burning fossil fuels, as if the climate crisis simply does not exist.
Here are my responses to Penman’s questions about CORSIA:
“The reason that the aviation and other large polluting industries like offsets is that they let them appear to be addressing climate change while at the same time continuing to burn fossil fuels.
“The one guaranteed thing that happens under carbon offsetting is that the carbon emissions still take place, because the flights still happen, meanwhile the offsetting may not succeed.
“In order to address the climate crisis the single most important thing we have to do is reduce emissions from burning fossil fuel, there’s no way around that.
“Aviation and other polluters will try anything apart from leaving fossil fuels in the ground.
“CORSIA only kicks in in 2021, it’s voluntary and only covers international aviation, not domestic flights.
“If you accept that the climate crisis is existential and we need to react quickly then the aviation industry is doing the opposite.”
I also mentioned the social injustice inherent in REDD schemes.
“There’s a dramatic inequity.
“Offsetting schemes like REDD allow rich people in the north to continue their massively polluting lifestyles while having a serious impact on some of the poorest people on the planet because all of a sudden they are not allowed to clear a small area of forest to grow food for their family.
“It’s a direct conflict between the livelihoods in the north which are allowed to continue as normal, and the poorest of the poor in the global south.”
Verra’s straw man response
In a response to Penman’s article, Verra, the carbon certification company, completely avoids addressing the fact that offsets do not reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels – on the contrary offsets exist in order to allow emissions from burning fossil fuels to continue.
In fact, Verra’s response makes no mention of fossil fuels.
Instead of responding to the points raised in Penman’s article, Verra creates a straw man fallacy and responds to arguments not made in Penman’s article. Verra sums up the arguments against CORSIA as follows:
The article’s two main criticisms seem to be that a) carbon offsetting gives airlines a “license to pollute”, i.e., a permit to keep emitting carbon dioxide, and b) that the carbon offsets traded under CORSIA are issued and traded before it has been ascertained that the emission reductions they represent have indeed happened.
Verra ignores the first point (which is one of the points I did make in my interview with Penman). Verra addresses the second straw man argument as follows: “Under the Verified Carbon Standard, VCUs [Verified Carbon Units] are only issued after an auditor verifies they have in fact already taken place, so that these VCUs represent real emission reductions.”
The point I was making was not that offsets are traded before Verra (or any other certifying body) has certified them, but that of “permanence” – one of the fundamental, unresolved problems that offsetting faces.
Even if deforestation is reduced over a period of, say, three years, there is no guarantee that the forest will not be cleared in the future. Or that the forest might burn down in the future – which is increasingly likely as the climate heats up. When that happens, the carbon that had been temporarily stored in the trees returns to the atmosphere.
When an aeroplane burns jet fuel, it releases greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, water vapour, nitrous oxides, sulphate, and soot. Part of the carbon dioxide released will remain in the atmosphere for a very long time.
Alain Karsenty, a researcher at the Centre for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD) in France, notes that, “a complete neutralisation of emissions would require almost perpetual storage. But who can provide such a guarantee?”
As the global temperature increases, forests are ever more prone to going up in smoke. A 2017 paper in Science found that tropical forests have moved from being a carbon sink to being a source of greenhouse gas emissions. While stopping deforestation is crucially important, forests are not a secure place to store carbon.
REDD and social injustice
Verra denies the social injustice inherent in REDD. In its response to Penman’s article Verra writes that,
REDD projects do not negatively impact the ability of local communities to earn their livelihoods. Instead, these projects transform local economic forces so that communities are able to make a living from a standing forest, i.e., from activities other than deforestation.
There is a body of scientific literature that challenges this Panglossian view of REDD. Here’s a sample:
- The 2018 book, “Global Forest Governance and Climate Change”, includes a series of case studies on REDD and a blistering critique in the introduction by Jesse Ribot, Professor of Geography at the University of Illinois. Ribot writes of REDD project developers ensuring participation of local communities by a means of facilitated manipulation of “facipulation”. He writes that, “Carbon sequestration is important, but will never be worth the facipulated subordination of forest-dependent people. It does not justify imposition. It does not justify fascism — carbon fascism or any other kind.”
- A 2016 study by Norwegian academics Hanne Svarstad and Tor A. Benjaminsen titled “Nothing succeeds like success narratives: a case of conservation and development in the time of REDD” looks at a REDD project in Tanzania. Svarstad and Benjaminsen write that, “the large majority of the villagers we talked to were actually sceptical of the REDD project in general and about its agricultural component in particular.”
- In 2018, Svarstad and Benjaminsen wrote an article titled, “Norwegian climate policy affects the poorest”. They write that, “In Kondoa, we have seen that women have been particularly affected by REDD due to restrictions on gathering wood for cooking.”
- A 2018 paper titled, “Learning From ‘Actually Existing’ REDD+: A Synthesis of Ethnographic Findings” found that, “Early evidence from REDD+ projects suggests major challenges, including: ongoing weak enforcement of domestic laws on forests and land, leading to limited effectiveness; contestation or conflict over property rights and community benefits; as well as securitisation and violence, often perpetrated by government agencies.”
- An Australian academic called Timothy Frewer wrote his PhD on the Oddar Meanchey REDD project in Cambodia. The project was a series of community forest projects that failed to stop deforestation (partly because the Cambodian military kept bulldozing forests). Frewer documents how the only “successful” community forest project was run in a “despotic” manner by a local Buddhist monk. “If we measure REDD in terms of providing people with a humble income stream that can act as a disincentive to clearing forest, then the project has failed miserably in all sites,” Frewer writes.
- A 2018 report published by the Rights and Resources Initiative asks “Mai-Ndombe: Will the REDD+ laboratory benefit Indigenous Peoples and local communities?” The report argues that REDD must ensure community land rights for indigenous peoples and local communities. The reality on the ground documented in the report is that there is confusion over land rights and routine violation of indigenous peoples’ rights.
- A 2018 paper titled, “Who bears the cost of forest conservation?” looks at the impact of a REDD project in Madagascar on the farmers living in the project area. The poorer the farmers, the bigger the impact on their livelihoods. The paper concludes that ““Conservation restrictions result in very significant costs to forest communities.”
PHOTO credit: “The Illusion of Green Flying”, by Stay Grounded.