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Airline industry clears forest-carbon credits for takeoff

© CI/photo by Bailey Evans

In a historic announcement, the global civil aviation industry has paved the way for airlines to help neutralize their climate footprint by protecting nature.  

This week, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the UN that sets global aviation standards, approved two forest-carbon programs from which airlines can buy carbon credits. The purchase of these credits represents a reduction of climate-warming carbon emissions to compensate for emissions made somewhere else. These “nature-based” credits — under the UN framework known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, or REDD+ — fund protections for forests that absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere.  

Despite significant improvements in efficiency in recent years, aviation remains one of the world’s top carbon-emitting sectors, and experts who have been following the ICAO proceedings hailed this week's announcement.  

“The science is clear — the world cannot meet its climate goals without significantly scaling up the protection of nature,” said Maggie Comstock, a senior director of climate policy at Conservation International, who contributed technical advice to ICAO throughout the process. “Carbon credits generated through the conservation and restoration of forests can provide high-quality emissions for airlines while protecting wildlife, keeping ecosystems intact and contributing to local livelihoods. 

“This is a win for the industry and a win for nature.”  

Under ICAO, countries agreed to cap emissions from global aviation at 2020 levels, requiring airlines to use more efficient aircraft, better operational practices and alternative jet fuels. However, even with these improvements, a large emissions gap will remain before the fast-growing sector — which was moving 4 billion passengers a year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit — can reach its stated goal of carbon-neutral growth.   

To fill that gap, ICAO created a carbon market — formally known as the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) — wherein airlines can buy carbon credits from approved programs. This week's announcement from ICAO allows the inclusion of forest-based carbon credits from specific REDD+ programs, particularly in developing countries, as an eligible offset type for airlines under CORSIA.

Starting in January  2021, airlines flying between countries that have signed on to the initial  “phase”  of CORSIA are required to reduce emissions from international flights that exceed their 2019 emission levels.  Since airline travel has nosedived during the pandemic — reducing the industry’s 2020 emissions levels to far below where they were in 2019 — demand for offsets will be low in the short term and likely increase as the airline industry recovers, experts say. 

As CORSIA expands over time to include additional countries — and air travel rebounds, presumably — the corresponding increase in emissions will need to be reduced or offset, including potentially through REDD+ credits.

The inclusion of REDD+ credits as an eligible offset type is significant step, experts said, in helping to mainstream one of the most innovative ideas in conservation. REDD+, a United Nations-backed policy and incentives framework, enables countries to protect forests to achieve the emissions cuts required under the 2015 Paris Agreement; this week's announcement, they contend, heralds a major step toward making REDD+ an effective weapon in the fight against climate change.  

“ICAO’s decision sends an important signal to countries that halting deforestation and restoring degraded ecosystems is an urgent, global priority and that the international aviation industry will be a leader in investing in nature-based solutions to climate change through the purchase of high-quality carbon offsets,” said James Roth, the senior vice president of global policy and government affairs at Conservation International.  

“Nature offers at least 30 percent of the solution to climate change but currently receives less than 3 percent of climate-related funding,” Roth continued. “That needs to change if we are going to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and this announcement helps put us on that path.” 

In March, ICAO set limits regarding the age and origin of eligible credits: Only projects that started to issue credits after 2016 will be eligible, and for the time being, only units generated between 2016 through 2020 will be accepted for the voluntary in the initial phase. Going forward, each carbon-credit program can “unlock” post-2020 credits after meeting additional requirements to prevent double-counting of emission reductions with countries’ national commitments under the Paris Agreement. 



Bruno Vander Velde is the senior communications director at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: The Alto Mayo Protected Forest, Peru (© Conservation International/photo by Bailey Evans)

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