Explained | Why the ‘world’s first carbon-neutral airline’ is facing a lawsuit

What is a carbon-neutral flight and why was Delta Airlines slapped with a lawsuit? How do airlines select carbon offsetting options? Are there any regulations to ensure transparency?

June 13, 2023 05:56 pm | Updated 05:56 pm IST

A complaint filed in a U.S. federal court claimed that Delta Air Lines inaccurately billed itself as the world’s “first carbon-neutral airline” and should pay damages. File

A complaint filed in a U.S. federal court claimed that Delta Air Lines inaccurately billed itself as the world’s “first carbon-neutral airline” and should pay damages. File | Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: For three years, California-basedMayanna Berrin has opted to fly the steeply-priced — but purportedly “green” — Delta Air Lines. Delta in 2020 marketed itself as the “world’s first carbon-neutral airline”, investing $1 billion to work on reducing fuel usage and investing in carbon removal techniques. The carbon claims responded to a growing keenness among people like Berrin who wanted to engage in ecologically conscious air travel, and by extension, participate in a global transition away from carbon emissions. The veracity of these claims is now under scrutiny: on May 30, Berrin filed a lawsuit — the first of its kind against a U.S. airline’s climate claims — arguing Delta Air Line’s assertions were bogus, misleading and false.

“If you think you’re flying the world’s most green airline, and you’re not, why wouldn’t that be actionable?” her attorney Jonathan Haderlein said in an interview.

The ‘green airline’ tag is a contested commodity, as flyers and companies alike are realising that flying is a significant contributor to carbon pollution (accounting for more than 2% of all greenhouse-gas emissions). Aviation emissions could grow by 300-700% by 2050, per estimates. The Hindu looks at the proposed promises of “green flying”, and the architecture of the aviation industry’s carbon-neutrality marketing.

What does the lawsuit say?

The lawsuit accuses Delta of misleading customers with its sustainability pledges, which were advertised across press materials, social media and merchandise. Delta’s in-flight napkins read: “Carbon neutral since March 2020. Travel confidently knowing that we will offset the carbon emitted on your Delta flight.”

Delta relied on “carbon offsetting”, shorthand for a slew of ways companies can reduce or remove carbon emissions from the environment. Activities like planting trees, shifting to cleaner fuel, funding carbon capture techniques in theory balance out a company’s carbon emissions. A single round trip from Mumbai to L.A. generates 4.8 tonnes of CO2 (equivalent to charging 6,00,000 smartphones), but the claim is that the carbon pollution from this trip can be absorbed by trees or carbon vacuums that airlines like Delta supported. All the customer has to do is pay extra to participate in “green flying”. Delta in 2019 said it added 80 new aircraft that were 25% more fuel efficient than those in their fleet. Delta’s carbon offset portfolio consists of “half renewables, mostly wind and solar projects in India,” as per a Bloomberg investigation.

“I felt comfortable paying more because I was neutralising when I needed to travel for work or to see my family,” Berrin told The Associated Press, but she wouldn’t have paid extra had she known there was no merit to these claims.

According to Delta’s latest ESG report, it was responsible for roughly 43.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2022 — almost seven times Botswana’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry in 2021.

The lawsuit is based on media reports that have found glaring loopholes in the carbon offsetting process. Criticism includes: “inaccurate accounting” of projects where reductions would have occurred regardless of carbon market involvement; failure to immediately offset emissions; relying on impermanent solutions, such as building projects (like forests) that may be destroyed by natural hazards (California wildfires burned more than 1,50,000 acres of forest allocated for the State’s offset programs). A 2022 Bloomberg investigation, for instance, found the reductions from the Los Cocos II wind farm project in the Dominican Republic Delta Air Lines paid for would have happened regardless of Delta’s involvement.

“Your flight today dumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere right now, worsening climate change from this day forth. Saplings planted today won’t grow large enough to offset today’s emissions for decades, nor will investments in speculative technologies like nuclear fusion or direct air capture, even if they eventually become viable.”Betsy VereckeyHow to Choose Carbon Offsets that Actually Cut Emissions, MIT SLOAN SCH. (Nov. 2, 2022)

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Berrin and others like her, seeks class-action status, asking for compensation for unspecified damages, disgorgement of profits, and a legal restriction on Delta from making any future “bogus” claims. Delta has denied these allegations, arguing that it has pivoted from carbon offsets “toward decarbonisation of our operations, focusing our efforts on investing in sustainable aviation fuel,” a spokesperson told the Associate Press.

Is it an airline-wide problem?

A Dutch court in April this year heard a “greenwashing” case against Netherlands-based airline KLM. Rights group Fossil Fuel alleged that KLM’s advertisements suggest flying with the airline is not directly hazardous to the environment, which violates Europe’s consumer laws by misleading customers about sustainability initiatives. “The only manner to fly sustainably is not to not fly or to fly less... Anything that KLM says differently...misleads consumers”, Fossil Fuel’s lawyer said.

Misleading carbon-neutral claims in flying aren’t rare: Ryanair’s campaign that urged customers to fly “Europe’s Lowest Fares, Lowest Emissions Airline” was found to be misleading by a U.K. advertising body in 2019.

A 2021 Guardian investigation found the carbon offset systems of most airlines are “flawed” and deceptive. A June 2022 Greenpeace report found seven of the biggest European airlines — including KLM and Lufthansa — were committing “quite offensive” levels of greenwashing. Another study which examined 37 airlines’ claims on carbon offsets found 44% of these airlines — such as Air Canada and Swiss Airlines — mislead customers and profited from “green” assertions. In 2021, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which is home to 300 airlines across 120 countries, pledged to achieve net zero by 2050, in a move that was criticised as “greenwashing” by experts

What are carbon credits?

Carbon offsets work like a game of Monopoly, except instead of money, companies deal in carbon emissions. A company gets “carbon credits” for investment in offset projects, tokens which represent an amount of carbon dioxide which would have been funnelled out of the atmosphere due to these initiatives. Each credit is equal to a metric ton of CO2, which would have caused global warming. These credits allow companies to continue emitting carbon in one place (say, aeroplane travel), with the promise their offsets are reducing emissions elsewhere (in distant rainforests). The voluntary carbon-offset market is expected to grow from $2 billion in 2020 to around $250 billion by 2050, per a 2023 report by Morgan Stanley.  

The United Nations in 2008 formalised this idea by setting up the Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), believing that the incentives from offsetting will help nations achieve climate goals.

In the aviation industry, carbon offsets have begun to attract customers’ attention, as platforms offer flyers to “cancel” their greenhouse emissions by paying extra. A 2022 McKinsey survey found almost half of the respondents said they’re “really worried” about climate change, and agreed that the aviation sector should transition to carbon neutrality. MakeMyTrip in June last year partnered with Climes, an Indian start-up, to neutralise the carbon footprint of their travel by investing in a project of their choosing.

Why the controversy?

However, the offset market has been criticised for appealing to climate consciousness without real effort or impact. One line of scrutiny is about the efficacy of offsets in general: growing evidence shows reforestation as a climate adaptation programme is ineffective and misleading. They failed to sequester the carbon in the first place, or the gains made were quickly reversed or inflated, a 2019 ProPublica investigation of Brazil’s rainforests showed.

Another concern hints at the moral problem of greenwashing — where big polluters continue to use fossil fuels and opt for a cheaper route to cutting emissions by way of offsets, all while middle- and low-income nations struggle with climate realities. Experts also argue it lulls people into thinking they are contributing to the environment. While those in favour argue carbon offset programs may work one day towards achieving net-zero goals, the consensus is they bear little to no immediate impact. One 2015 working paper found global CO2 emissions would have been 600 million tons lower if countries had cut pollution at the source instead of buying offsets.

There are also blind spots built into the offset system. The voluntary carbon offset market is self-regulated: there are middlemen in the form of organisations like REDD+ that connect credit buyers and sellers. There are “certification” standards set by companies like Verra which allow companies to create and register their carbon-offsetting projects (the Gold Standard is considered among the most rigorous credit programs).

Offset programs work only when they remove or reduce carbon emissions that wouldn’t have been eliminated otherwise, what is called “additionality”. Paying to conserve rainforests that no one was planning to cut then technically doesn’t amount to offsetting carbon emissions, and the company should receive no credits for it. A Guardian investigation in January located several big companies like Delta, Shell and Disney in this blind spot: about 90% of rainforest carbon offsets certified by Verra are likely to be “phantom credits” without accounting for any real reductions and would make global heating worse.

Proving additionality is a structural challenge, for it is hard to track the genuine progress of activities on the ground. Moreover, there is no universally-recognised way to count carbon offsets, and little transparency around their mathematical modelling, making any correlation between carbon reductions and offset programs tenuous. A 2021 paper analysed the “world’s largest carbon offset program”, the Clean Development Mechanism, and found “at least 52% of approved carbon offsets were allocated to projects that would very likely have been built anyway”, amounting to “a substantial misallocation of resources”. The program included setting up 1,350 wind farms in India.

ALSO READ | Time to put a price on carbon emissions

Though little data exists about the impact, Norway published a report in 2018 about REDD’s assessment, concluding the results of offsets were “delayed and uncertain”, the science of measuring was not in place and offset projects often resulted in “leakage”, when protecting one area of land led to deforestation elsewhere.

Governments are working to tighten regulations around environmental marketing to discourage greenwashing, such as U.S. regulators updating their “Green Guides” which would rein in claims that are “unfair” or “deceptive”. South Korea announced a draft law to penalise companies for false green claims. Greenwashing is considered an unfair trade practice under the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, which prohibits misleading claims, but implementation of these regulations remains a challenge.

What comes next?

Activists and experts worry carbon credits within aviation are poorly regulated, little understood and may misdirect the conversation from meaningful climate action by aviation companies. “...the low price of carbon offsets often deters companies from pursuing ‘emissions reductions in their own operations and value chains’, despite adequate contributions to global climate change mitigation targets necessarily requiring the ‘effective reductions of emissions across’ ‘operations and value chains’ instead of reliance on offsets,” the lawsuit noted. In the long run, it would prove to be “pernicious for climate goals”.

Instead, the focus can be on decarbonising commercial aviation, with the help of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), hydrogen, and full-electric propulsion techniques. But these avenues are predicted to face obstacles as air traffic continues to grow and innovative decarbonising technologies are far in the distance. A Moody’s 2021 report found about 10 million gallons of low-emission aviation fuel was produced globally in 2021, less than 0.02% of industry’s current needs.

Environmental and Energy Study Institute executive director Daniel Bresette said in an interview: “Until carbon offsets are better regulated and more transparent, travellers need to exercise due diligence to determine whether they’re worthwhile in terms of costs and benefits.”

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