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Historic airline emissions agreement could be good news for forests

Last week, 191 nations agreed on a plan to offset emissions from international air travel, committing to carbon-neutral growth starting in 2020. The resolution may prove to be a major boost to forest conservation efforts as airlines seek carbon-absorbing projects to complement their efforts to increase fuel efficiency and sustainable alternative fuel sources.

The decision of the U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization addresses a major gap in the historic Paris climate agreement, which will enter into force in early November. Though it is not automatically binding, already 66 countries representing 85 percent of all international flights have signaled their intention to join the initiative from the start.

Conservation International (CI) worked in partnership with eight other nonprofits to present a business case for the use of REDD+ — the U.N. program for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries — to help balance the aviation industry’s carbon budgets.

“The aviation sector has taken a critical step forward in addressing climate change,” said Adam Schoenberg, senior director at CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. “It is necessary for all sectors to pursue an ‘all-of-the-above’ approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions — recognizing the importance of efficiency, technological solutions and high-quality offset opportunities like REDD+. This is an important step in a long process.”

International air travel currently accounts for 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but that figure is expected to more than triple as ridership grows in coming decades. As a result, the airline industry will face an emissions gap of nearly 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2035 compared to 2020 levels — equivalent to the emissions from 125 million cars.

Offsetting that quantity of carbon will be a major challenge, but experts say forest conservation programs offer a potential solution.

“REDD+ is a proven approach for delivering emission reductions alongside environmental and community benefits,” said Maggie Comstock, CI’s director of climate policy. “Nature can provide 30 percent of the mitigation solution to climate change, and REDD+ can support the airline industry achieving its climate goals in a verifiable and transparent way.”

The U.N. estimates that investment from airline offsets could total as much as US$ 24 billion a year by 2035. That figure would represent a new era for forest carbon finance — an industry that last year totaled US$ 700 million worldwide — and for the 1.6 billion people that depend on healthy, intact tropical forests for their livelihoods.

Since 2009, REDD+ projects supported by CI have protected more than 3,700 square kilometers (1,400 square miles) of tropical forests, providing benefits to communities like fresh water, flood prevention and continued access to food and medicine.

“Forests are significant absorbers of carbon, but they also are vital for the health of our environment and people everywhere,” said Agustin Silvani, vice president of CI’s Conservation Finance Division. “A program like REDD+ is particularly powerful because it combines all of these benefits and values them for what they are: a comprehensive investment in our future.”

Jamey Anderson is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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Cover image: Aerial view of a forest in Guatemala. (© Robin Moore/iLCP)