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CORSIA: Hot air carbon credits cannot offset polluting planes

The first carbon credits issued under the UN’s CORSIA offsetting scheme will do nothing to bring down the aviation sector’s sky high emissions.

The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), the UN scheme aimed at offsetting emissions from international flights, is taking off for real. After a three-year pilot phase, the scheme entered its first phase at the beginning of 2024. And now, a few months into the year, the first credits eligible for use under this phase of CORSIA have been issued.

So who is the pioneer that provided these first credits? 

In February of this year, Guyana authorised the issuance of forestry-based carbon credits under the programme ART TREES. A whopping 7.1 million such carbon credits were created, which can be used for CORSIA and other offsetting purposes.  

In order to be eligible for use under CORSIA’s first phase, credits have to come from a crediting programme that is approved by the UN agency overseeing CORSIA, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). This is currently limited to ART TREES and the American Carbon Registry (ACR). In addition, any carbon credits used to offset airline emissions under CORSIA need to involve a corresponding adjustment. This means that the country where a credit was issued needs to expunge it from its emissions balance sheet.

The Guyanese credits met the most important criteria for CORSIA eligibility: they were issued by a recognised crediting programme and Guyana committed to implement the necessary corresponding adjustment.

Bleak horizons

CORSIA is often promoted as an effective way to reduce the aviation sector’s emissions, but in practice it suffers from numerous flaws, the foremost among them being that the scheme does not actually reduce emissions. These shortcomings will only be exacerbated if CORSIA-compliant credits are of low quality. 

Unfortunately, if these first ART TREES credits are any indication of the credits that are going to be used under CORSIA, its future is looking bleak: they seem to represent mostly hot air, rather than helping cool down the planet.

ART TREES allows eligible national and subnational governments with high forest cover and low deforestation rates (HFLD) to issue carbon credits based on a theoretical, and somewhat arbitrary, assessment of the level of deforestation expected in the country. While it is crucial to financially support countries and authorities that have successfully protected their forests and continue to do so, doing so via carbon markets is problematic because the climate benefits of HFLD carbon credits are artificially inflated, even though they are used to offset very real emissions.

Artful inflation

There is hence a high risk that a single HFLD credit does not represent a tonne of reduced CO2 emissions. In fact, researchers and experts found that of the 33.5 million credits issued by ART TREES to Guyana over the period 2016-2020, a mammoth 28.2 million credits (84%) were a result of the artificial HFLD adjustment alone.

While this doesn’t mean that Guyana’s efforts have no impact, or that they should not be supported with international finance (quite the contrary), using these credits under the assumption that they can fully compensate for the climate damages of airlines is unrealistic. Other large polluters are relying on these credits to make such outlandish claims. For example, in December 2022, the Hess Corporation committed to buy 37.5 million ART TREES credits from Guyana, specifically with the intention to offset its emissions while it expands extraction of oil and gas. 

Counting difficulties

In the case of CORSIA, the requirement for a corresponding adjustment has been touted as a way to safeguard that credits are not ‘double counted’ by both the host country and the user of the credits, and that countries have an incentive to ensure their credits actually represent emissions reductions. This is because if they do not, it would adversely affect their emissions balance which would have serious consequences for achieving the country’s climate goals. 

The second point, however, is where it gets complicated. In order for countries to feel the pressure of meeting their emissions targets, they need to actually have binding and stringent targets in place. For many countries, this is not the case. Countries that have historically contributed very little to the climate crisis cannot be held to the same responsibility as big polluters without ambitious targets. This principle is called ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ under the Paris Agreement. This is why these countries often have NDCs without binding or strict emissions targets. This is also the case for Guyana, which has a target set at business-as-usual level. For such a country, then, massively overissuing carbon credits does no harm by design.

Instead of relying on the corresponding adjustments of Guyana, or any other country that will be supplying these credits, the aviation sector must focus on CORSIA itself: the scheme has left gaping loopholes in its requirements. While there are eligibility requirements in place for baseline setting, additionality and permanence, a programme like ART TREES and its HFLD credits were able to qualify. CORSIA’s programme-eligibility process, and the quality criteria it is based on, are seriously lacking. 

These first credits set a terrible precedent, not only for CORSIA but for the voluntary carbon market at large, as CORSIA approval will give legitimacy to credits that are inherently incompatible with offsetting. Other avenues must be found to finance HFLD governments, while the aviation sector must start taking responsibility for reducing its own emissions.

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