European airlines misleading customers with claims of “carbon-neutral” flights – study

A new study commissioned by Carbon Market Watch has revealed gaping holes in the effectiveness of voluntary climate action taken by eight major European airlines. Misleading claims of “carbon neutral” flying, a dependence on poor quality carbon offsets and the low cost of a tonne of CO2 that customers can pay to offset are just a few of the problems highlighted in the report.

The voluntary action that major European airlines take to compensate for their pollution is far from adequate, a new report released today reveals. Research undertaken by Öko Institute on behalf of Carbon Market Watch found that the climate action taken by the eight biggest European airlines lacked transparency and integrity, with some airlines even making the false claim that customers can fly carbon neutral.

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

For the European Union to meet its climate goals, more regulation is urgently needed in the aviation industry, climate policy experts from Carbon Market Watch recommend in a related briefing based on the findings of the study.

“By ensuring that airlines pay for their pollution and provide reliable evidence to back up their green claims, new policies could improve prospects for the climate and rein in the greenwashing that is rife across the aviation sector,” Rao says.

Flights of fancy

Taking a flight is one of the most carbon-intensive actions that a person can do but, since pandemic rules were lifted, airlines have been working hard to cloud this fact to encourage customers back into flying. The new study records that most of the carbon offsetting options offered by the airlines were from cheap and low-quality projects with uncertain benefits for the climate, and no guarantee of permanence.

Main findings of the report

  • Low visibility: There is a major lack of transparency by airlines when it comes to reporting their voluntary actions.
  • Economy class: Nearly all airlines rely on relatively cheap forestry projects in developing countries that are unsuitable for offsetting fossil fuel emissions due to the non-permanence of carbon storage.
  • Cheap deals: The estimated average price for purchasing a carbon credit per customer varies between airlines, with a range between €9 and €30. The price paid by two airlines at the corporate level, without customer input, is even lower at €4 and €8. All prices paid are way below the true cost of emissions reductions in the aviation sector.
  • Off the radar: Several airlines are still ignoring the effects of non-CO2 emissions, such as nitrogen oxides and water vapour, at higher altitudes, which cause a warming effect up to three times worse than carbon dioxide alone.
  • Faulty signalling: The airlines provide a misleading signal that carbon offsets significantly reduce or eliminate the climate impact of flying, which could incentivise further growth in air travel when we should, instead, be reducing it.
Table 1 – Summary of results from study, see full results and comments in the report.

Currently, the carbon emissions of flights within the European Economic Area (EEA) are paid for in the EU’s Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), while any flights that start or end outside of the EEA are covered by the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). CORSIA requires airlines to offset a small portion of their CO2 emissions, but has been shown to be ineffective in driving the decarbonisation needed in this polluting industry.

Regulation required

The report showed that additional voluntary action by airlines is similarly ineffective, and the need for governments to step in was highlighted in an associated policy paper. The paper, published by Carbon Market Watch, recommends:

  • As the EU institutions embark on the so-called trilogue to find common ground for a final deal on the revision of the EU ETS for aviation, they should seize this opportunity to end the reliance on airlines’ voluntary actions to mitigate the negative impacts of their emissions, by expanding the EU ETS scope to cover all flights departing and arriving in the EEA, leaving fewer uncovered emissions.
  • The EU should require clear and complete disclosure of information from airlines regarding their purchase of carbon credits, as well as any other voluntary actions they take. This can be achieved through the EU corporate sustainability reporting standards being developed by the European Financial Reporting Advisory Group (EFRAG).
  • The EU should also ban misleading advertisements, such as carbon neutral flights, through its review of the Unfair Commercial Practices directive.
  • Guidance on how to make informative, rather than misleading, claims should be provided by EU regulatory bodies, for example through the European Commission’s Green Claim initiative.

Contact details
Gemma Bowcock
Communications Officer
Carbon Market Watch
[email protected]

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