NGOs clash over eligibility of REDD+ forestry credits under ICAO's proposed aviation carbon offsetting scheme
Mon 18 Apr 2016 – The world’s forests currently store more carbon than is in the world’s atmosphere and tropical forests alone absorb almost a fifth of all carbon dioxide released each year from the burning of fossil fuels. However, the destruction of these same tropical forests contributes 10 to 15 per cent of global annual carbon emissions. To address the problem, the UNFCCC launched in 2008 a programme called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD, later enhanced to REDD+) in developing countries through which a financial value could be created on the value for the carbon stored in forests and then offered through offset credits as mitigation options. REDD+ credits are now under consideration by ICAO as to whether they should be eligible in the carbon offsetting scheme for international aviation currently under development. Environmental and conservation NGOs are divided though on their suitability.
A group of nine NGOs – which includes Environmental Defense Fund, Global Canopy Programme, Conservation International, Nature Conservancy, Sustainable Travel International and Verified Carbon Standard among others – says that unlike mitigation efforts, each REDD+ credit not only avoids one tonne of CO2 from being emitted but can also protect biodiversity, support local communities and ensure that vital ecosystem functions remain intact. REDD+ has been recognised as a valuable mitigation strategy and financial incentive through Article 5 of the recent Paris Agreement, they point out, and therefore should be allowed by ICAO as an eligible activity in its global market-based measure (GMBM) scheme.
“A commitment by ICAO and the aviation industry to offset aviation emissions through the protection of forests would underscore the remarkable impact of the Paris Agreement,” said Peter Seligmann, CEO of Conservation International. “Through this measure, the aviation sector can lead the world in financing the protection of tropical forests, which together provide 30% or more of the solution to climate change while simultaneously providing benefits to local communities.”
Andrew Mitchell, Founder Director of the Global Canopy Programme, said by helping to reduce global deforestation through addressing its carbon emissions, the aviation sector would not only slow climate change but also help meet UN Sustainable Development Goals. By supporting REDD+, the sector would be demonstrating to governments, the private sector and consumers the critical nature of protecting forests and planet, added Geoff Bolan, COO of Sustainable Travel International.
In a briefing paper aimed at ICAO “policy makers”, the NGOs said REDD+ could be depended upon to provide the required volume of offsets to help meet the aviation industry’s 7.8 billion tonne CO2 post-2020 gap, as well as supplying additional benefits in developing countries – including sustainable development, biodiversity conservation and improved human well-being – “and to do so with environmental integrity.”
The early stages of the REDD+ programme have not gone entirely smoothly, with many tales of corruption and fraud. However, the NGOs say the sector has matured considerably with the development and implementation of more robust approaches for the accounting, monitoring, reporting and independent verification of REDD+ activities. Tools and methods have been created to account for and manage non-permanence and leakage to other areas, ensuring that credited forest emission reductions are real and permanent, they report. In addition, methods have also been developed to determine additionality and ensure credible baselines for calculating reductions based on historical deforestation.
Other NGOs are not convinced however of the integrity of REDD+ credits and a statement signed by 89 international civil society organisations has called on ICAO to exclude land-based offset credits such as REDD+ type projects. The group – which includes Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Fern and Transport & Environment – is against the use of carbon offsetting in general as, the NGOs argue, it is “a significant distraction from the real measures that need to be taken to reduce aviation emissions.”
Adds the statement: “Offsetting is widely considered a false solution because it does not lead to emission reductions but merely shifts emissions from one sector to another and, at best, is a zero-sum game.”
The group says offset projects have proved themselves largely incapable of complying with the principles which ICAO has laid out for carbon offset compliance. They argue REDD+ projects are particularly contentious.
“ICAO’s own standards rule forests and land offsets out from the start because they need to be permanent emissions reductions, which is impossible to prove for forests because the removals are reversible,” said Hannah Mowat, Fern’s land and climate campaigner.
“ICAO standards also require offsets to ‘do no harm’. Given the countless stories of social conflict due to people being denied access to their land and restricting their traditional use of forests, airlines must think twice about the likely damage to communities – and hence their reputation.”
The anti-REDDs also add that offset credits from forest conservation, tree plantation or soil carbon sequestration carry an additional risk of becoming null and void when wildfires, storms or natural decay cause an uncontrollable release of stored carbon.
“This is one of the reasons why the UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) excludes all offset categories related to forest or agriculture land use except for afforestation, reforestation and biomass energy projects,” says their statement. “Even then, credits from these tree planting offset projects are sold as temporary carbon credits that need to be bought again in a matter of years because credits from tree planting projects cannot be considered to permanently store carbon.”
The group says it is also difficult to avoid double-counting of offset credits where forests are concerned as these are typically already included in national greenhouse gas inventories through countries’ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). However, the pro-REDD NGOs say all REDD+ activities can be tracked in transparent registries and host countries required to account for REDD+ tonnes in their national accounts.
“These requirements would need to be applied to all credits, REDD+ or otherwise, being used by the aviation sector,” they add.
The sector, in the main, supports the inclusion of REDD+ credits in the global MBM scheme. “Our position is that we want to have access to as wide a range of offset opportunities as possible, as long as they meet the quality criteria,” said an industry spokesperson.