- Without drastic and expensive technology advancements, trajectories for aviation emissions are unlikely to change substantially in upcoming decades. However, current policy is aiming to offset those emissions — with substantial benefits to other sectors, particularly global forests.
- The CORSIA carbon offsetting scheme, slated to start three-phase implementation in 2021 and end in 2035, will act as the first global market-based measure (MBM) governing an entire industry. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is currently reviewing the work of its MBM Task Force and will soon determine the framework that will ultimately be implemented.
- Over 90 NGOs, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have called CORSIA a distraction from measures to reduce aviation emissions beyond offsetting. However, considering the growing aviation sector and technological barriers in rapidly reducing aviation emissions, unique external solutions like CORSIA can provide a solution with benefits to other sectors.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
If aviation emissions were counted as those of a separate country, that country would be ranked as a top ten emitter. The aviation industry’s activities currently contribute between 3.5 and 4.9 percent of total global emissions, and this is expected to increase to 4.4 to 6.2 percent by 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
There are more than 10,000 flights operating every day around the world, and air passenger numbers are forecast to double by 2030. Without drastic and expensive technology advancements, trajectories for aviation emissions are unlikely to change substantially in upcoming decades. However, current policy is aiming to offset those emissions — with substantial benefits to other sectors, particularly global forests.
Considering the scale of emissions and projected growth, the aviation sector is essential to the climate change mitigation discussion. Yet when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) member countries adopted the Paris Agreement in late 2015 — a history-making global agreement to address climate change with mitigation (emissions reduction) and adaptation (addressing and responding to climate change impacts) — the aviation industry was excluded. This created a pressing need to address aviation sector emissions — and provided a good deal of autonomy to the industry on how to do so.
Tasked with the responsibility of regulating international aircraft emissions under Article 2(2) of the Kyoto Protocol, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is a specialized United Nations agency created in 1944 with the purpose of “helping States achieve the highest possible degree of uniformity in civil aviation regulations, standards, procedures, and organization.” The organization’s governing Council, comprised of 40 elected country “Members States” (out of 191), has developed a framework for a Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation — known as CORSIA — which was adopted during ICAO’s 39th Assembly in October 2016. CORSIA will act as the first global market-based measure (MBM) governing an entire industry. CORSIA is supported by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a group within ICAO that represents private business interests and covers over 250 companies and 80 percent of the sector.
Since 2013, ICAO members have been working to identify options to respond to growing aviation emissions, sharing information publicly, and releasing an assessment of three options for market-based mechanisms. The 39th Assembly continued efforts to design the MBM, by introducing CORSIA, launching new working groups, and developing a series of regional workshops to collect input from member States. The CORSIA carbon offsetting scheme is slated to start three-phase implementation in 2021 and end in 2035, with periodic three-year compliance reviews (beginning 2021-2023). The ICAO council is currently reviewing the work of its MBM Task Force and will soon determine the framework that will ultimately be implemented.
Over 90 NGOs, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have called CORSIA a distraction from measures to reduce aviation emissions beyond offsetting. However, considering the growing aviation sector and technological barriers in rapidly reducing aviation emissions, unique external solutions like CORSIA can provide a solution with benefits to other sectors. In particular, offsetting could bring important financial benefits to global forests while providing an economic incentive for airlines to reduce emissions.
Benefits for global forests?
The aviation sector would provide an enormous source of offsets, many of which could go to the forestry sector as an important channel of carbon sequestration and storage. ICAO now faces a critical moment to determine the program details of CORSIA, such as the crediting mechanisms, measurement systems, and methodologies that will be accepted to offset aviation emissions. This includes the arrangements that need to be in place to link an MBM with a mitigation activity, such as reduced deforestation.
Linking aviation emissions with forest offsets would result in positive outcomes for forests and forest-dwelling communities, protecting key habitats and species richness and preserving important ecosystem services like water filtration and nutrient cycling. Offsets would offer an important source of income to provide well-being and human development opportunities that don’t involve cutting trees. As such, forest offsets offer carbon and non-carbon benefits, including increased security for forest-dependent people and communities. ICAO offsets offer an opportunity to support global forests and forest communities in a quantifiable, accountable, transparent, and truly beneficial way.
The UN’s program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, known as REDD+, was included in the Paris Agreement as a standalone article. The program aims to establish international financial exchanges to conserve forests, key habitats, stored carbon, and improve the livelihoods of forest communities. There are important financial considerations for REDD+, and a growing consensus that funding will need to be diverse and include public, private, and donor- and market-based finance. It is still not clear how CORSIA might fit into the international agreements and REDD+, but the funds would certainly strengthen REDD+ as well as voluntary carbon market advancement.
Further, existing programs and protocols can supplement CORSIA, such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), American Carbon Registry (ACR), and Climate Action Reserve (CAR). Due to growing voluntary and compliance markets in recent years, like the California Cap and Trade program, these organizations have developed strong reputations as real, verifiable, and measureable credit producers, and all offer verification of credits by forest lands. Use of these additional registry systems have already been approved in the ICAO negotiations.
Overall, since no single finance source will be adequate to fully protect global forests, steady funding from the aviation sector could be crucial for forest offsets going forward.
Determining Offset Criteria
Decisions on the offset criteria for aviation can focus on environmental integrity, in both measurement methods and market mechanisms, to create a system that is transparent, simple, and offers actual climate benefits. The CORSIA Monitoring Reporting and Verification (MRV) will be implemented through ICAO, using Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) as guidance for an Emissions Units Criteria (EUC) system. As it stands, credits may be eligible for use in CORSIA if they align with ICAO criteria and avoid double counting between different pools such as aviation and the emissions-reduction plans known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) countries submitted as part of the Paris Agreement.
Forests can produce credits that are real, measurable, verifiable, and additional. CORSIA could tap these credits by directly aligning with the activities of UNFCCC REDD+ programming, national monitoring systems, and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), among other options and considerations. With commitment from both developed and non-developed countries, financial inputs could benefit forests and forest-dwelling peoples in developing countries as well as create opportunities in climate-smart forest activities in developed countries.
Eligibility criteria adoption is an opportunity to set clear signals to the industry so that companies and member countries can begin preparing for the 2020 MBM. In fact, 73 member states have already committed to the initial voluntary phase, beginning in 2021. Sophy Greenhalgh, managing director for aviation at the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), said in a statement that “Beyond the high-level criteria, further specific detail about activities and credits accepted for CORSIA is essential to supporting environmental integrity of the system and allowing investment in good time.” While there are many details to sort through, eligibility criteria for offsets could be determined and communicated in the near term.
Because of the size of the sector, projected growth, and difficulty in reducing emissions, the aviation sector is perfectly situated to provide a significant source of financing to our global forests via forestry offsets. This industry has an opportunity to demonstrate that international industries can work with governments to set meaningful limits on pollution while benefiting communities, habitats, and ecosystem services.
Any platform to offset emissions from the aviation industry must be transparent, have environmental integrity, and be as simple as possible to avoid confusion. Regardless of how the CORSIA mechanism is determined, it should contribute to raising ambition on climate change efforts from both developed and developing countries, and aim to create co-benefits that reach beyond the emissions offsetting itself, such as in forest conservation, biodiversity protection, and sustainable development.
Lauren T. Cooper directs the Forest Carbon and Climate Program (FCCP) at the Michigan State University Forestry Department. Her work focuses on forests, people, climate, habitat protection, wood use, and sustainability. She has international experience in Peru, Mexico, and Ecuador, and previously worked in Washington, D.C. at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).
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