Can Airlines Save the World From Deforestation?

The prospect that the aviation industry will help to preserve forests by purchasing carbon offsets has left environmentalists divided.

As global deforestation continues, threatening biodiversity and spewing carbon into the atmosphere, an unlikely potential savior has emerged. Fearing that governments aren’t moving fast enough, environmental nonprofits and project development firms hope the aviation industry will fly to the rescue by purchasing carbon credits.

“This is potentially the deal of the century,” contends zoologist Andrew Mitchell, founder and director of Global Canopy Programme, an Oxford, England–based think tank devoted to preserving tropical forests. Not so fast, say some other environmentalists, who worry that the big polluters in air transportation will get off the hook too easily.

From Brazil to Russia to the U.S., deforestation is a serious problem. Between 1990 and 2015 the share of the world’s land under forest cover declined from 31.6 percent to 30.6 percent, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports. It may not sound like a big drop, but the total woodland lost during that period is nearly the size of South Africa.

With the help of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program launched in 2008. Two years later the program, which reimburses countries for preserving their forests, was expanded to REDD+, whose mandate includes conservation and sustainable management as well as carbon emissions reduction. Since then a private market for REDD+ credits has arisen, with project developers selling them to finance sustainable-farming ventures and other conservation efforts.

But the REDD+ market is largely voluntary: Most purchasers are companies that use the offsets to meet self-imposed corporate social responsibility goals. As a result, it’s hardly awash in capital, even though REDD+ credits are the most popular voluntary carbon offset, accounting for about half of the market’s volume in 2014, according to Forest Trends, a Washington–based nonprofit that promotes forest conservation. The broader voluntary carbon market remains tiny, with a value of just $395 million that year.

The aviation industry could provide a much-needed jolt. In October the 191-nation International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Assembly will agree on its first set of market-based measures to address climate change, with the aim of achieving carbon-neutral growth starting in 2020.

That’s a worthy target: If the aviation industry were its own country, it would be a top-ten emitter of carbon dioxide, according to the Paris–based International Energy Agency. In 2013 fuel combustion by aircraft produced 798 million metric tons of the greenhouse gas, about 2.5 percent of the global total from combustion and slightly more than No. 6–ranked Germany’s output. If the industry stays on its current course, carbon emissions from aviation will grow between 300 and 400 percent by 2050, Brussels–based Carbon Market Watch estimates.

The ICAO’s emissions reduction plan will probably require individual airlines to buy offsets for each ton of carbon emitted above a certain threshold. Global Canopy Programme’s Mitchell hopes that REDD+ credits will be on the menu of options. “The scale of demand that could come from aviation will far exceed any other demand that’s currently on the table for REDD+,” he says.

Right now REDD+ demand only accounts for about 3 percent of the estimated supply that would be available in a robust forest credits market, Mitchell adds. Without a major compliance market like the European Union Emissions Trading System requiring companies to purchase the offsets, or a secondary market for selling them, REDD+ credits will go for whatever they can fetch from a voluntary buyer.

The impacts of the depressed REDD+ market aren’t limited to abstract offset prices, notes Edit Kiss, director of business development and operations at Althelia Ecosphere, a €100 million ($115 million), London–based investment firm focused on sustainable land use. They’re also being felt in forests.

“The sad reality is that today, we have so many projects that have started, communities are waiting for the money to flow, and the money is not flowing,” says Kiss, whose firm finances REDD+ enterprises. “There are lots of projects, and they are struggling to sell their credits on a voluntary basis.” A member of the London–based Climate Markets and Investment Association’s REDD+ working group, Kiss co-authored an April policy paper recommending that the ICAO adopt REDD+ credits.

Michael Schneider, assistant director of the Montreal–headquartered International Air Transport Association’s carbon offset program, says he believes his industry should include REDD+ in its basket of acceptable offsets. But Geneva–based Schneider points out that airlines have gotten pushback from environmental nonprofits that say the ICAO’s goals aren’t ambitious enough, and that an offset scheme involving REDD+ would simply shift carbon-emitting permissions, not slash carbon emissions.

Offsetting is a “distraction” for aviation, argues Hannah Mowat, forests and climate campaigner with Fern, a Brussels–based nongovernmental organization that tracks European Union involvement in forests. In Mowat’s view, improving the energy efficiency of jet engines and finding ways to fly less are more urgent matters.

Kiss, who says she’s frustrated by environmentalists’ push to steer aviation away from REDD+, accuses them of missing the point. “Offsetting should be viewed as a transitional tool,” she asserts. “Nobody thinks they should be the end objective.”