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Climate action requires turning up the heat on aviation

As holidaymakers travel across the European continent to discover their destinations besieged by record-setting heatwaves and wildfires, the airline industry continues to promote the idea that jet setting need not cost the Earth. The new climate reality suggests otherwise.

There has never been a hotter June (or July) in history, long standing temperature records are seemingly being shattered on a weekly basis and extreme weather events, such as wildfires, tornadoes and flooding have become more regular right across the planet. 

As flying is one of the most carbon emitting activities an individual can undertake, the aviation industry is a major contributor to this new climate reality. The sector accounts for 2-3% of total global carbon emissions and there is also the multiplying effect of additional planet heating gases and vapours dumped by aircraft at high altitudes. 

Photo by Caleb Cook on Unsplash

Despite this, airlines sell an image of a green and sustainable mode of travel whose climate impact can be neutralised primarily through carbon offsetting, while diverting attention from their real emissions output. 

Flight of fancy

It is not that airlines are unaware of the need for environmental action, as reflected in, for example, Delta Airlines recent self-description as “the world’s first carbon-neutral airline”, a claim which has got it into legal hot water. And while forests burn, this year KLM proudly and surreally reported the steps it takes to recycle coffee cans and pads that may be consumed on board its gas-guzzling flights, and other airlines enthusiastically communicate the usage of recycled cups and plates or reusable glassware.  

These initiatives speak to a consumer base that thinks in a more environmentally conscious way than ever before. announced in a recent survey that 83% of travellers view travelling sustainably as vital, whilst the new generation of consumers representing Millennial and Gen Z groups have both suggested that they are willing to spend more on a product if it came from a sustainable brand. Is it any wonder why airlines are keen to offer passengers a boarding pass on a flight of fancy?

Journey with us on ‘Hot Air’ by watching our amusing video on how airlines greenwash the climate impact of flying:

However, it is inside the ecologically window-dressed shop where airlines are hiding the worst details of their illusory climate consciousness.

Clouding reality

By telling passengers in a reassuring and positive way not to worry about the impact of flying, airlines are failing to be honest with their customers. Typical slogans include ‘Fly responsibly’ or ‘Connecting the world, protecting its future’. 

These soundbites are as disingenuous as they are irresponsible, and have raised the ire of Europe-wide consumer groups, which have recently filed a complaint with the European Commission and consumer protection authorities over misleading claims by 17 airlines about the sustainability of flying.

Many airlines falsely promote the idea that the carbon impact of a flight is neutralised through contributions to carbon offsetting schemes or through piecemeal commitments to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

Up in smoke

Last year, a study we commissioned revealed gaping holes in the effectiveness of the voluntary climate action taken by the eight major European airlines.

The investigation revealed that on the whole the voluntary actions taken by airlines to reduce their environmental impact are unclear and vague, while it was established that the carbon offsets selected tend to be cheap or of poor quality. 

Customers of different airlines were charged up to four times more for their credits than the airline paid as a corporation, with the estimated cost ranging between €9 and €30. One airline paid a corporate price as shockingly low as €4 per tonne of CO2, which is far lower than the price of a tonne of carbon on the EU’s Emissions Trading System, which peaked at €100 earlier this year.

The true extent of greenwashing was revealed by airlines ignoring the damaging impact of their non-CO2 (nitrogen oxides and water vapour) emissions at high altitudes, and remarkably by two airlines using the deceptive and misleading terms ‘carbon neutral’ to describe flights.

“Carbon markets are an easy and exploitable target for profit-focused, polluting industries such as aviation,” explains our in-house expert on the decarbonisation of aviation and shipping Daniele Rao. “A lack of regulation and cheap, low-quality carbon credits enable airlines to make claims that at first glance suggest robust climate action but on closer inspection are tantamount to greenwashing.”

One example of this kind of greenwashing is using carbon credits generated through the temporary storage of carbon dioxide in natural ecosystems to supposedly reverse or eliminate the damage done to the atmosphere. “The forestry projects that airline companies choose to invest in not only tend to habitually and willfully overestimate greenhouse gas reductions but are also susceptible to rereleasing that stored carbon due to logging or a natural disaster such as fire,” Rao adds. “Much like forests during a heatwave, the green claims of airlines go up in smoke.” 

Photo by Neil Palmer on Wikimedia Commons

One-way ticket

Unfortunately, unlike the bold claims of airlines, flying green does not (yet) exist. As the heat is being turned up on the planet it should be redirected towards the aviation industry. CMW is pushing for tighter regulation of misleading airline advertising, for greater transparency over the use of carbon credits and other voluntary climate action undertaken by airlines, and that the polluter pays principle should apply.

“Customers are sold exaggerated claims that when they choose to fly their end destination is a planet with a stable climate future, but as we are experiencing this summer we are all passengers on a one-way journey to a dangerously hot future, crash landing into one climate emergency after another,” concludes Daniele Rao.  “The onus is on airlines to be serious in addressing their climate impact and to be honest to consumers about the true damage flying inflicts on the planet.”


  • Gavin Mair

    Gavin is a member of the communications team. He formerly supported the work of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, and held responsibility for media output and office management for two MEPs prior to Brexit. He is an experienced campaigner, relishing the challenge of communicating for causes that have a social and environmental impact and is motivated by CMW’s mission of holding businesses and governments to account as they move towards essential environmental ambitions and transitions. When not fighting the good fight Gavin can typically be found enjoying live music or attending to his houseplants.

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