Why Forests and Flight Go Together

By Peter Graham and Anthony Mansell

March 2018

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Carbon Offsetting Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) allows airlines to contribute towards the aviation industry’s goal of carbon neutral growth from 2020 onwards by financing greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions outside of the aviation sector.

To fully comply with CORSIA, most airlines covered by CORSIA will need to purchase emission reductions. This is because air travel is expected to continue growing globally, and the corresponding increase in greenhouse gas emissions will likely outpace emission reductions achieved through efficiency and other means. Many airlines already offer GHG offsets to interested customers, including through forest conservation which is tangible and popular with airline customers. More specifically, leading airlines such as Air Canada, Delta Air Lines, Kenya Airways, Qantas and United Airlines enable their passengers to voluntarily offset emissions from their flights with forest conservation and restoration activities.

One of the most cost-effective ways for airlines to reduce their emissions is by conserving and restoring forests in developing countries. The international community, acting through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has created a policy framework to promote emission reductions from the forest sector, commonly called “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation” (REDD+). REDD+ is also an important ingredient in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. While the policy framework for REDD+ already exists, the economic incentives for action have been limited, and thus haven’t yet significantly affected deforestation and forest restoration trends in most tropical forest countries.

For airlines under CORSIA, the REDD+ framework represents an opportunity for high quality and relatively low cost offsets with real and marketable co-benefits of interest to passengers. Moreover, REDD+ is readily scalable. If correctly designed, CORSIA could provide airlines with high quality forest emission reductions at an industry scale.  Using REDD+ in the right way to meet CORSIA obligations, however, would require airlines to update the way in which they access forest carbon credits.

Airlines can benefit significantly from supporting REDD+ programs

  • Emission reductions from deforestation programs would satisfy a substantial portion of airline demand for offsets through CORSIA, especially during that program’s Pilot and First Phases (2021-2026).
  • If REDD+ programs are properly designed, they offer significant non-carbon benefits that could provide addition public relations and financial benefits for airlines. These include preserving biodiversity and sensitive ecosystems in a way that boosts increased demand for ecotourism by vacationers.
  • Because it is supported by the United Nations, including the UNFCCC Warsaw Framework for REDD+ and the Paris Agreement, REDD+ enjoys regulatory certainty as an endorsed approach to reducing GHG emissions.

Airlines should use CORSIA to stimulate the creation of REDD+ offsets that will benefit airlines later

  • The rulebook and policy framework for REDD+ already exists, and active programs in countries are already generating reductions. Additional programs are expected to deliver results in the next three to five years.
  • Through airlines’ purchases of REDD+ credits, CORSIA will generate significant finance that will drive developing countries’ performance in reducing emissions from deforestation and help them shift to a green development path.

Several transaction structures could be available to purchase REDD+ credits

  • These include credits airlines could purchase through direct Government-to-Government Agreements, the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, local carbon offset exchanges in forest countries, or a possible new, global REDD+ Clearinghouse.
  • Airlines should consider the optimal transaction structure now so that forest offsets are readily available in time for airlines to meet regulatory obligations growing out of CORSIA.

Early investment can drive REDD+ action on the ground. Airlines could mobilize action by announcing that they would support REDD+ programs that are eligible for CORSIA compliance. These aspects demonstrate the opportunity for airlines in supporting REDD+.

Based on these findings, this report offers the following recommendations to airlines:

  1. Airlines should signal their interest in REDD+ now, to mobilize forest countries to create a large supply of credits in time for compliance with CORSIA
  2. Voice support for REDD+ inclusion in CORSIA, consistent with the Paris Agreement’s rules and guidance.
  3. Actively support the creation of additional mechanisms that simplify airlines’ access to high quality REDD+ credits, such as a REDD+ Clearinghouse.