By Julia Christian (Fern)
Controversy has long plagued the Oddar Meanchey carbon offset project in Cambodia.
Solid evidence has been in the public domain for years that forests supposed to be protected by the project—which has been backed by the United Nations’ REDD+ scheme– have in fact been systematically cleared by the Cambodian military.
Finally this week Virgin Atlantic – which had sold carbon credits from the project to passengers who wanted to offset emissions from their flights – said they were pulling out of the project.
The airline’s announcement was triggered by a report by Fern, Unearned Credit, which built on earlier evidence of the widespread problems in Oddar Meanchey to reveal the heavy deforestation and human rights abuses taking place there.
Virgin’s welcome action, however, shouldn’t mask the deeper problem with forest offsets, nor the inherently flawed logic they’re founded on.
Fern’s aim in publishing our report was to influence a wider debate happening within the international aviation industry.
Against a backdrop of growing opposition from the public and activists, the UN’s aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), is proposing that the airline industry use huge volumes of carbon credits to mitigate the sector’s significant climate impact.
International aviation contributes more to global warming than all but nine of the world’s nations, yet ICAO is proposing to double the sector’s emissions between now and 2050 – and “balance it out” through purchasing carbon offsets.
This is likely to involve significant use of forest offset credits, since they tend to be the cheapest.
However, Virgin’s statement – made in a comment to the Phnom Penh post on 10 January announcing that they were pulling out of Oddar Meanchey – highlights why forest offsets simply don’t work, and why ICAO’s plans to massively ramp up their use is so dangerous.
Anna Catchpole, a spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic, said Oddar Meanchey’s REDD+ project had been included in Virgin Atlantic’s portfolio “in good faith”, and that Natural Capital Partners had confirmed in 2013 that the operation complied with international standards.
But after Fern’s report, she said, the company decided it would no longer purchase credits from the area. “As a customer, we rely on independent accreditation schemes like this to ensure quality,” she said. “But things can change in the years between verifications, and because of the subsequent concerns raised we asked NCP to remove this project from our portfolio.”
Virgin’s claim that ‘things can change between verifications’ underlines the inherent flaws of carbon offsets.
The airline may have stopped purchasing Oddar Meanchey credits, but for the offsets they have already used, the emissions they were meant to ‘balance out’ are now forever in the atmosphere.
This can happen at any point in a forest offset project, even years after the project is finished. As soon as any forest is destroyed, its effect of balancing out emissions disappears. Storage of carbon in forests is highly reversible and volatile. It cannot be used to balance out the release of carbon into the atmosphere—which is permanent.
Virgin’s comment that “they rely on independent accreditation schemes like this to ensure quality” is also telling.
The Oddar Meanchey project was certified by Verified Carbon Standard (VCS)—seen by many as leaders in carbon verification standards. This proves these standards can’t be trusted. Yet ICAO’s forest offset plans are likely to rely heavily on these independent certification standards. This is deeply worrying.
ICAO needs to come up with a plan to actually reduce emissions, rather than pretending they can hide these through dodgy forest offsets.
There is no way of avoiding the fact that flying is a disaster for the climate. For individuals, there is no faster way of frying the planet.
Nevertheless, international aviation is not included in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The organisation responsible under the UN system, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has so far taken no meaningful action to reduce emissions from aviation.
Last year, ICAO agreed a deal supposedly aimed at addressing the climate impacts of aviation. But the deal is meaningless.
Until 2020, aviation emissions will increase. ICAO promises us “carbon neutral growth from 2020”. This, of course, doesn’t mean reducing emissions from aviation.
Instead, ICAO proposes a massive new carbon trading scheme: the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).
ICAO is currently developing rules about what types of carbon offsets can be used under CORSIA.
A recent report from Fern highlights the problems with offsetting emissions from the aviation sector. Titled, “Unearned credit: Why aviation industry forest offsets are doomed to fail”, the report focusses on forest offsets.
The report includes case studies of two REDD projects that international airlines have used to offset flight emissions: Mai Ndombe in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and OddarMeanchey in Cambodia.
Richard Branson’s carbon emitting business
Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, likes to talk about climate change. In September 2017, he was in New York speaking at the Climate Week Opening Ceremony. Last week he was in Paris for the One Planet Summit.
On his blog, Branson writes about “Thumping the table for united climate action”, and about “the need to take decisive action to tackle climate change before it is too late”.
But as Branson acknowledges, “Virgin is involved in a number of businesses that emit a lot of carbon”.
The Virgin Group includes several airline companies, which are responsible for millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases every year. In 2007, he launched Virgin America, and in 2012, Virgin Australia. Then there’s Virgin Galactic, the spaceflight arm of the Branson empire.
In 2006, Branson made a “firm commitment” to spend US$3 billion over the next ten years to develop a low carbon aviation fuel. In fact, he spent well under US$300 million, and failed to come up with a new biofuel.
Virgin Atlantic offers passengers the option to offset their flight emissions with carbon offsets bought from the Oddar Meanchey project.
Virgin Atlantic’s carbon offsetting problem
Fern’s report looks at the Oddar Meanchey project through the lens of ICAO’s criteria for carbon offset programmes.
Out of eight criteria, the Oddar Meanchey project fails on five. Two are dubious, and one is unknown.
The reality is that the REDD project has failed to protect the forests in Oddar Meanchey. There have been a series of land conflicts associated with the project, and the project has been unable to stop the Cambodian military from clearing forest in the project area.
SumOfUs has set up a petition to Virgin Atlantic, asking the company to stop misleading its customers and find real solutions to reduce its carbon emissions:
A spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic told the website Runway Girl Network that the company has “contacted Natural Capital Partners to investigate the claims made by Fern”.
Natural Capital Partners is an offsetting company that was previously known as The CarbonNeutral Company, and before that Future Forests.
A spokeswoman from Natural Capital Partners told Runway Girl Network that the project is certified to the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standard. The spokeswoman said that the project was visited by an independent auditor to confirm that it is reducing deforestation.
But the project was verified under the CCB Standard in August 2013. And a great deal has happened since then.
The NGO that was running the project, Pact, ran out of funding in 2013. Microsoft walked away from buying carbon credits from the project. The Cambodian military bulldozed forest in the project area. The next audit is due sometime in 2018.
In January 2014, I asked two questions of Terra Global Capital, the company selling carbon credits from Oddar Meanchey:
- How can you sell carbon credits from a project where the Cambodian army is destroying the forest?
- How do you address leakage – the fact that deforestation in the province of Oddar Meanchey is continuing, outside the REDD project in community forest areas?
Leslie Durschinger, Managing Director of Terra Global Capital replied the following day. She didn’t answer either question. “I find your request for information to be more your preformulated answers than questions,” she wrote. “And we do not believe your formulation of the answers is correct.”
Full disclosure: REDD-Monitor has in the past received funding from FERN. Click here for all of REDD-Monitor’s funding sources.
“Biodiversity offsetting” is not the silver bullet solution this government hopes will overcome destruction of valued natural habitats
The UK government hopes it has found a way to develop, over countryside and habitats, destroying them and yet claiming no wildlife or habitat has been lost. The neat trick is “biodiversity offsetting”, which is claimed to be a market mechanism that will allow developments to flourish while protecting the environment. In simple terms, if you destroy ancient woodlands, wildlife and vital habitats in one place, you have to pay to create it in another. Green NGOs across the UK see this, in reality, as a license to trash national parks, farmland, ancient woods, village greens etc. Rather than replacing habitat with its exact equivalent, a generally lower quality area might be created. By loosening planning laws, biodiversity offsetting becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. As development projects increase, so biodiversity decreases – and becomes more important. The record of biodiversity offsetting from other countries is usually one of failure. It may be as little as one third of schemes that succeed. These schemes should not be done at the expense of destroying existing biodiversity, in the uncertain hope that will be recreated elsewhere, somewhere more convenient for the developers.
WWF blog on what ICAO needs to do to make meaningful steps toward limiting global aviation CO2
The CO2 emissions from the global international aviation sector have largely been left out of global efforts to tackle climate change. If they continue to rise while other sectors decrease, aviation’s share of global CO2 emissions will increase from 1.4% today to 22% in 2050. In September we have a chance to start to take action on this when ICAO will seek global agreement on a market-based measure (MBM) to make international airlines start paying for their CO2 emissions. So far ICAO’s efforts have been conducted in near-total secrecy. Civil society groups have long been pushing for greater transparency in ICAO, and now ICAO has finally published its draft Assembly Resolution text. A key issue to be resolved is how to share out emissions targets between countries, recognising that developed countries (and their airlines) should take the lead in cutting CO2. The ICAO Assembly Agreement needs to make two things clear. (1) that offsetting CO2 emissions above 2020 levels is only a first step and in-sector CO2 reductions will also be needed, so the sector is playing its part in moving towards a 1.5°C goal. And (2) that ICAO nust ensure that airlines will only be allowed to claim emissions reductions from carbon credits and biofuels if they achieve real emissions reductions – not dodgy ones. On this point the current text is ambiguous.
NGOs call on ICAO not to use REDD+ carbon credits – forests & soils cannot offset aviation CO2
The organisation, FERN* has published a letter signed by around 82 environmental NGOs around the world, calling on the global aviation sector through ICAO to actually reduce carbon emissions, rather than just the proposed use of carbon offsetting. The NGOs say plans to offset most of the sector’s growth in emissions are a significant distraction from real measures to reduce aviation emissions. Under business-as-usual, aviation is projected to increase emissions by between 300 – 700% by 2050, despite only being used by well below 10% of the world’s population. The NGOs are particularly concerned that carbon offsets that are inappropriate and unreliable would be used, as ICAO is considering a carbon offset system called REDD+ (‘Reduce Deforestation from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’). The NGOs say REDD+ credits should not be used, as they do not even meet ICAO’s own standards, and include double counting. REDD+ projects that tackle the real drivers of large-scale deforestation – extraction of oil, coal, mining, infrastructure, large-scale dams, industrial logging and international trade in agricultural commodities – are largely absent. There is also a risk that agricultural offsets would favour large-scale farmers or monoculture farming practices. These are not suitable offsets for aviation.
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