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Airline pollution deal hinges on carbon offsets

The United Nations (UN) aviation climate accord hinges on creating a system requiring companies to spend billions of dollars to protect forests, build solar farms and more. The trick will be ensuring those projects are legitimate.

The agreement finalized Thursday in Montreal calls for airlines to compensate for their emissions growth beyond 2020 by buying credits to back eco-friendly initiatives. The idea is that as airlines add new routes, they’ll help finance projects to counteract the additional pollution. Think of it as planting trees to absorb every new ounce of carbon dioxide.

MB FILE   (AFP | 2016.mb.com.ph)

MB FILE
(AFP | 2016.mb.com.ph)

Yet what types of credits, or carbon offsets, will be eligible and how the UN will verify their ecological integrity remains unresolved. The quality of these offsets varies. Last year, the research group Stockholm Environment Institute said about 75 percent of offsets offered through the UN’s second-biggest program had dubious environmental value, including claims that some Russian factories were boosting emissions solely to sell offsets generated by later cutting them. Ultimately, the Montreal accord’s success depends on ensuring offsets bought by airlines are authentic.

“We have to be cautious,” said Paul Steele, senior vice president of the International Air Transport Association, a trade association representing 265 airlines. “There are a lot of credits out there that are not particularly robust.”

In theory, carbon offsets are a zero sum tool for the atmosphere. If a company increases its emissions by 100 tons of carbon dioxide, it can buy offsets to preserve an endangered forest, saving enough trees to suck up 100 tons of carbon. The environmental damage is, theoretically, negated.

Carbon offsets are sold by companies. They’re backed by a wide variety of programs, ranging from massive solar farms that reduce the need for coal-fired power plants to projects in Chinese villages to fuel cook stoves with methane derived from animal dung.

Rules Needed

Environmentalists say it’s possible to create a successful program for the airline industry. The key, they say, is establishing strict protocols to verify that projects are legitimately lowering emissions and not also being used to satisfy national targets under the Paris agreement or any other accord.

“If we can get the rules right, we can build something that’s durable,” said Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. “The industry wants predictable rules here.”