Virgin Atlantic: A small victory in a bigger battle
Controversy has long plagued the Oddar Meanchey carbon offset project in Cambodia.
Solid evidence has been in the public domain for years that forests supposed to be protected by the project—which has been backed by the United Nations’ REDD+ scheme-- have in fact been systematically cleared by the Cambodian military.
Finally this week Virgin Atlantic - which had sold carbon credits from the project to passengers who wanted to offset emissions from their flights - said they were pulling out of the project.
The airline’s announcement was triggered by a report by Fern, Unearned Credit, which built on earlier evidence of the widespread problems in Oddar Meanchey to reveal the heavy deforestation and human rights abuses taking place there.
Virgin’s welcome action, however, shouldn’t mask the deeper problem with forest offsets, nor the inherently flawed logic they’re founded on.
Fern’s aim in publishing our report was to influence a wider debate happening within the international aviation industry.
Against a backdrop of growing opposition from the public and activists, the UN’s aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), is proposing that the airline industry use huge volumes of carbon credits to mitigate the sector’s significant climate impact.
International aviation contributes more to global warming than all but nine of the world’s nations, yet ICAO is proposing to double the sector’s emissions between now and 2050 - and “balance it out” through purchasing carbon offsets.
This is likely to involve significant use of forest offset credits, since they tend to be the cheapest.
However, Virgin’s statement - made in a comment to the Phnom Penh post on 10 January announcing that they were pulling out of Oddar Meanchey - highlights why forest offsets simply don’t work, and why ICAO’s plans to massively ramp up their use is so dangerous.
Anna Catchpole, a spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic, said Oddar Meanchey’s REDD+ project had been included in Virgin Atlantic’s portfolio “in good faith”, and that Natural Capital Partners had confirmed in 2013 that the operation complied with international standards.
But after Fern’s report, she said, the company decided it would no longer purchase credits from the area. “As a customer, we rely on independent accreditation schemes like this to ensure quality,” she said. “But things can change in the years between verifications, and because of the subsequent concerns raised we asked NCP to remove this project from our portfolio.”
Virgin’s claim that ‘things can change between verifications’ underlines the inherent flaws of carbon offsets.
The airline may have stopped purchasing Oddar Meanchey credits, but for the offsets they have already used, the emissions they were meant to ‘balance out’ are now forever in the atmosphere.
This can happen at any point in a forest offset project, even years after the project is finished. As soon as any forest is destroyed, its effect of balancing out emissions disappears. Storage of carbon in forests is highly reversible and volatile. It cannot be used to balance out the release of carbon into the atmosphere—which is permanent.
Virgin’s comment that “they rely on independent accreditation schemes like this to ensure quality” is also telling.
The Oddar Meanchey project was certified by Verified Carbon Standard (VCS)—seen by many as leaders in carbon verification standards. This proves these standards can’t be trusted. Yet ICAO’s forest offset plans are likely to rely heavily on these independent certification standards. This is deeply worrying.
ICAO needs to come up with a plan to actually reduce emissions, rather than pretending they can hide these through dodgy forest offsets.