Carbon offsets used by airlines not credible, investigation shows

Major airlines have claimed in recent years that they can offset emissions by supporting forest conservation projects, yet a new investigation reveals that the systems used are deeply flawed. One of the main offset accreditors, Verra, whose ‘avoided’ deforestation scheme is criticised in the investigation for lacking credibility, also supplies credits for the UN Corsia scheme, the global agreement designed to tackle airline emissions.

Pressure has grown in recent years on airlines to reduce their climate impact and they have increasingly opted for offsetting schemes which either plant or promise to preserve trees. British Airways boldly announced that its passengers could “fly carbon neutral” by buying forest protection credits while EasyJet relies on offsetting projects in Peru and Ethiopia as part of its efforts to “become a more carbon neutral airline”.

But the investigation by the Guardian and Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative arm, found it difficult to justify such promises of carbon neutrality and guilt-free flying as the systems used to measure offsetting’s impact are so flawed. 

‘Avoided’ deforestation schemes are based on hypothetical predictions of how much deforestation would happen if the project did not exist with comparable nearby regions used as a reference.

The investigation questioned the simplistic methodologies which overestimate the amount of deforestation that would have happened if these schemes didn’t exist. In the case of easyJet in Peru, it used a much more heavily populated area as a reference region, meaning its deforestation potential was much higher. It also criticised the fact that projects are only set to last a short period of time, meaning that the carbon savings from forest preservation are not guaranteed over the longer term. CO2 emissions released by jets stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

One of the main offset accreditors, Verra, which was criticised in the investigation, also supplies Corsia credits under which global airlines can pay to offset carbon pollution. In November 2020 the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) broadened the range of natural climate solutions, such as forest protection schemes, accepted under Corsia. It was the first international compliance carbon market to accept such credits. 

This follows an unpublished EU study, obtained by T&E in March, which heavily criticised Corsia, suggesting that it could actually undermine Europe’s climate effort. It found that the Corsia deal is “unlikely to materially alter” the climate impact of air travel with “none” of the approved offsetting programmes meeting all the required criteria.

Jo Dardenne, aviation manager at T&E, said: “We simply cannot rely on carbon offsets when there is no way to guarantee that they bring the kind of emissions savings that are claimed. Offsetting will never be enough to tackle emissions of the world’s fastest polluting transport sector. Airlines should stop using it as an excuse to postpone climate action.”

Only a reformed EU carbon market and an ambitious green jet fuels law will put airlines on the path to zero emissions,” she added.

The EU’s carbon pricing scheme currently includes all flights within the European Economic Area but not flights in and out of the region. Next month, the European Commission, which delayed publishing the analysis, will say how it thinks the UN offsetting agreement should apply to European flights.