Airlines Are Misleading Flyers With Carbon-Neutral Claims, Study Says


Europe’s biggest carriers say they’re offsetting emissions, but new analysis suggests their efforts are failing

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(Bloomberg) — Europe’s leading airlines are misleading consumers with claims that they can fly guilt-free by using carbon offsets to neutralize the environmental impact of air travel, according to a new report by the nonprofit Carbon Market Watch. 

A temporary dip during the Covid-19 pandemic aside, airline emissions have been steadily rising for the past two decades and, left unchecked, could potentially triple by 2050. Globally, the industry generates roughly one billion tons of CO2 per year — comparable to the emissions of Japan, the world’s third-largest economy.

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To assuage travelers’ conscience, airlines have turned to carbon offsets, marketing their corporate investments and encouraging passengers to purchase offsets to cover their own flights. But these voluntary efforts don’t work, Carbon Market Watch said, because the carriers are relying on cheap, poor quality offsets that can’t be guaranteed to reduce emissions elsewhere. 

The conclusions are based on a study by research firm Öko-Institut, that assessed the the scale and quality of the emissions reduction policies from May to July of the eight largest airlines in Europe, collectively responsible for over half of the total CO2 emissions of the EU aviation sector in 2019: Air France, British Airways, Easyjet, KLM, Lufthansa, Ryanair, SAS and Wizz Air.

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The study found that nearly all the airlines assessed rely on offsets from cheap forestry projects in developing countries, efforts that are vulnerable over the long term. Trees can burn, die or be cut down if policies change, reversing their carbon storage, and might not around long enough to truly compensate for the carbon emitted.

“While not paying for their pollution, airlines are sending misleading climate neutrality signals to customers based on purchasing poor-quality carbon offsets,” said Daniele Rao, aviation and shipping decarbonization expert at Carbon Market Watch. “This bad practice must end.”

Aviation emissions are regulated under the EU’s emissions trading system, which is currently under review, and Carbon Market Watch says the EU should expand it scope to cover all flights departing and arriving in the European Economic Area, rather than just those within the zone. The EU should also require “clear and complete” disclosures from airlines on their carbon offset purchases and other voluntary climate action, ban misleading advertisements and issue guidance on how to make informative claims, the nonprofit said.

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EasyJet defended its environmental actions. “EasyJet is making real and significant steps towards the decarbonization of our operations, as most recently demonstrated by our net zero roadmap published last month, which outlines how we can get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 through a combination of fleet renewal, operational efficiencies, Sustainable Aviation Fuel, zero carbon emission technology and carbon removals,” it said in a statement. 

Both EasyJet and Ryanair agreed with Carbon Market Watch that the regulatory scheme should include all flights arriving in and departing from Europe. “This would mean that the richest passengers, on the most polluting long-haul flights, would finally pay their fair share of ETS environmental taxes,” Ryanair said in a statement, pointing out that short-haul flights within the EU account for less than half the region’s aviation emissions. 

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For their part, both British Airways and Air France said they are focused on a variety of short- and long-term decarbonizing and energy efficiency measures, and that carbon offsets are supplementary.  “Air France’s priority is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, primarily those generated directly by our operations,” the carrier said in a statement. “Carbon offsetting measures come in addition.” 

Wizz and Lufthansa haven’t responded to requests for comment.  

In June, another airline, KLM, was sued by Dutch environmental groups who say the carrier’s “Fly Responsibly” ad campaign amounts to greenwashing. In April, the Netherlands’ advertising watchdog ruled that KLM’s promotion telling customers they could fly emission-free is misleading.

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The authors of the Öko-Institut study said they had to rely on estimates due to limited information disclosures from airlines, both in their public reporting and in response to questions. From their research, offset prices paid by airlines and their customers were too low to signal any meaningful dent in emissions.

Carbon Market Watch called it a “cheaper and more convenient alternative, which requires no changes to the way they work or business model,” and airlines that market carbon-neutral flying “could encourage further growth in air travel when we should instead be looking to fly less.”



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