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Going green with the aviation industry (commentary)

  • The UN International Civil Aviation Organization intends to achieve “carbon neutral” growth from 2020, largely through carbon offsets.
  • The authors argue in favor of the aviation industry’s plans, described as “an opportunity to massively scale up funding to protect the world’s forests.”
  • This post is a commentary — the views expressed are those of the authors.

The eyes of those who steward forests around the world are on the international aviation industry this October. Initiatives to protect and rehabilitate forests are massively underfunded, and the onslaught of deforestation continues. More than 46,000 square miles of forest are lost each year, the equivalent to 48 football fields every minute. Since 1990, the world’s forests have shrunk by an area roughly the size of South Africa.

Yet an opportunity exists to potentially transform how we conserve the world’s forests and position the international aviation sector as a model for green growth in the global economy.

The aviation industry has largely gone unregulated, despite being a startlingly major source of emissions. If international aviation were its own country, it would be one of the top ten highest emitters of carbon dioxide emissions in the world — and because this pollution is emitted at high altitudes, scientists think it may exert an even more powerful warming effect. As the world’s population continues to grow, demand for international air travel also rises, meaning an estimated 56,000 new passenger aircraft will take to the sky over the next 25 years. As a result, carbon emissions from aviation are forecasted to skyrocket in coming years and could triple or quadruple by 2040.

Cargolux Boeing 747-400 freighter aircraft. Photo by wilco737/Flickr

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has made progress by voluntarily signing a declaration in 2013 that will cap emissions at 2020 levels. The commitment also includes parameters for the world’s first aircraft carbon dioxide efficiency standard. Although the industry has already begun to implement more efficient and reduced-carbon operations, the vast majority of emissions reductions will be realized through the use of new fuel-efficient planes. Upgrading the world’s fleet will take many years, and even after initial improvements in operational and technological efficiency, projections show a likely “emissions gap” of 7.8 billion tons over the period of 2020-2040.

Within this issue lies both a crisis and an opportunity to massively scale up funding to protect the world’s forests. To address the forecasted emissions gap, the ICAO general assembly will meet in Montreal this October to decide on a global market-based measure to ensure the sector achieves its agreed climate change targets — capping aviation greenhouse gas emissions at 2020 levels and delivering carbon neutral growth from 2020 onwards.

ICAO has the potential to transform the funding landscape for conservation projects that stop deforestation and rehabilitate degraded habitats. By including the payment-for-results conservation standard known as REDD in its selection of market based mechanisms, the aviation industry can take a major step towards realizing the ambitious climate goals set forth in the 2015 Paris agreement.

The helmeted hornbill is a large, critically endangered bird, found in the rainforests of Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo, and is hunted by poachers for its solid bill casque, often referred to as hornbill ivory. Photo by Doug Janson, Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Detractors of carbon offsetting like Greenpeace highlight that carbon credit purchases only seek to enable corporations as they continue to pollute, making the fight against climate change even more difficult by allowing companies to pay a “carbon tax.” But market-based offsets are a balanced and pragmatic approach when faced with the likely timeline for reducing fuel consumption and reality of the massive size of the 7.8-billion-ton emission gap.

By adopting the REDD, airlines can do more than just offset their emissions. REDD+ projects protect vital biodiversity, watersheds and rare animal habitat. REDD+ focuses on people, including members of low-income countries most affected by aviation emissions and the more than 1.6 billion who rely on forest resources for their livelihood.

Preserving the world’s natural assets is also good business. Tourists spend more than $200 billion annually in emerging market nations, representing a significant source of demand for air travel. Emerging market nations also have the most at-risk forests and natural habitats, and the effect of deforestation in these countries can massively impact corporate operating costs. Unilever CEO Paul Polman estimated that natural disasters, many linked to climate change, cost his multinational consumer-goods company over $300 million annually, stating that, “Deforestation is not one of the great challenges in the fight against climate change, it is the most important and most immediate and most urgent challenge.”

Peat forest fire damage in Riau, Indonesia. Tropical rainforests rarely burned in the past, but are seeing serious wildfires as climate change worsens. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Pragmatically, offsets are the best short-term solution for mitigating pollution, in conjunction with long term-emissions reductions strategies. Mechanisms like REDD may not be perfect, but they are the mechanisms that we have. The potential for an immediate influx in investments for conservation and biodiversity conservation programs far outweigh the downsides, particularly in light of a viable alternative.  

All the pieces are in place to better-preserve vulnerable biodiversity and help ecosystems become more resilient to climate change. The missing link is investment, and unless the ICAO includes support for REDD, a considerable number of these projects will stagnate for lack of funding. This is the chance for the aviation industry to be transformative — to emerge as a model for green growth, with a stronger customer base and reduced operating costs, all in a world that safeguards its forests, its biodiversity and its inhabitants.

Jeffrey Chatellier is the Country Director of Forest Carbon, an environmental consulting company in Indonesia and is a Manager of a 25,000 hectare rainforest conservation project in Borneo. Devan Wardwell is an avid environmentalist and specialist in impact investment.


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