The aviation industry faces a challenge. How can people fly and emit less? Consumers are increasingly demanding that airlines take urgent action to tackle their environmental effect, yet new technologies and sustainable fuels are many years from making an impact at the scale required. 

Green Biz’s Joel Makower met with leading Chris Webb, Head of Carbon Markets at environmental group The Nature Conservancy’s Chris Webb, Head of Carbon Markets, to talk about how investing in forests can help solve the problem. He explains that nature-based carbon offsets, such as tree-planting and restoring wetlands, can help airlines tackle the impact of emissions on the environment and address consumer concerns. 

Despite carbon offsetting schemes being established around a decade ago, the uptake has not been significant enough to make a difference to emission levels in aviation. But with passenger numbers set to double by 2037 it’s time to reassess how offsets can help the aviation industry tackle carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions until more sustainable solutions, such as Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) and new technologies can be implemented at scale.

Passenger expectations are growing

In 2019, the world became familiar with the Swedish word “flygskam”, which literally translates as “flight shame”. It quickly became synonymous with a growing anti-flying movement and a call to action.

“Consumers and customers are rapidly demanding companies take action to tackle climate change. And given the aviation sector’s footprint right now, along with decarbonising their core operations, offsetting could be an important part of their response to customers in the near term,” Webb said.

“Over time, we’ve seen more airlines actually use offsetting as a tool to help balance the unavoidable near-term emissions associated with some portion of their flights,” he added. “They will be held to an even higher bar in the near future than they were in previous years.”

The aviation industry is also implementing the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which aims to hold the sector to net-zero carbon growth from 2020. Under CORSIA, most of the reductions over the next decade will come from offsets, Webb said.

Stricter standards and greater resilience

“Concerns about the quality and permanence of nature-based offsets have largely been addressed over time through more rigorous standards and sophisticated programme design," Webb said.

“Those standards often use what’s called a ‘buffer mechanism’. Essentially, it’s a tool that sets aside a portion of the offsets for events that might result in those trees disappearing for one reason or another – fire, pest, other issues.” 

An urgent need for airlines to act

Webb warned that airlines taking a wait-and-see approach are in danger of finding themselves left behind by more proactive competitors.

“Those airlines that will likely be placed to succeed once the CORSIA scheme hits are those that have got in early and understand what it takes to generate high-integrity and at-scale offset projects, and have built the expertise and relationships and networks to do so.”

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Offsets alone cannot tackle aviation’s emissions challenge. Sustainable Aviation Fuel must play a major role, but what will it take to get SAF volumes to scale sooner? To address this and other questions, Joel Makower meets with Bryan Sherbacow, Chief Commercial Officer of World Energy, in the next programme in this series. Please sign up here now to receive this and other series updates. 

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