Close this search box.

Flights of fancy

Is the voluntary climate action of airlines effective or greenwashing?

After receiving huge government bailouts for staying grounded during the coronavirus pandemic, airlines are now pulling out all the stops to persuade people back into flying. But now that customers are more environmentally concerned and eco-savvy than ever, the industry responsible for 2-3% of the world’s carbon emissions has become ever more creative, clouded and confounding in their green claims.

We commissioned a study to look at the actions taken by the eight major European airlines to reduce their environmental impact, to understand the scale and quality of their efforts.

October 2022



Commissioned by Carbon Market Watch

Conducted by the Öko-Institute

Here are some of the main findings:

Low visibility

Airlines’ reporting of voluntary actions to reduce their environmental impact was, on the whole, unclear and vague.

Economy class

Airlines mainly opted for cheap, poor-quality carbon offsets.

Cheap deals

The estimated cost to offset a tonne of carbon varied greatly for customers of different airlines, ranging between €9 and €30. Some customers paid four times more for their credits than an airline paid as a corporation, and one airline paid a corporate price as shockingly low as €4 per tonne of CO2.

Off the radar

Most airlines ignored the damaging impact of their non-CO2 (nitrogen oxides and water vapour) emissions at high altitudes.

Faulty signalling

Two airlines used the deceptive and misleading term ‘carbon neutral’ to describe flights

The greenwashing of aviation is especially dangerous at a time when emissions reductions are crucial for staying within 1.5C of warming, the maximum global temperature change that the planet can withstand without causing widespread destabilisation. By tricking consumers into thinking that they can fly with minimal consequence, airlines are showing a disregard for the safety and wellbeing of current and future generations.

Looking to the future

This report strongly demonstrates that airlines cannot be trusted to take sufficient voluntary action in covering the damage caused by their profits-over-planet nonchalance. The only option now is for governments to intervene and start properly regulating airline emissions.

Polluters pay

The EU should 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.

Clear skies

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).

End misleading advertising

The EU should also ban misleading advertisements, such as carbon neutral flights, through its review of the Unfair Commercial Practices directive.

Coming in to land

Guidance on how to make informative, rather than misleading, claims should be provided by EU regulatory bodies, for example through the Europan Commission’s Green Claim initiative.

A closer look

The information in this table was released in October 2022

Airline All emissions offset? Provided enough information for voluntary climate action to reliably assessed? Customer offsetting based on CO2 and non CO2 emissions? Estimated average offset cost of a tonne of CO2 Tonnes of CO2 offset between 2019-2021 (estimates made from limited data) Provided evidence of offsets retired? Low-quality offsetting projects included in portfolio
Paid by customer Paid by airline
Air France €30 €8 500,000 ✔︎ ✔︎
British Airways ✔︎ €12 - 365,000 ✔︎
EasyJet ✔︎ ✔︎ ✔︎ - €4 5,269,476 ✔︎ ✔︎
KLM €16 - 203,000 ✔︎ ✔︎
Lufthansa €17 - 150,060 ✔︎
Ryanair €28 - 105,855 ✔︎
SAS - - 2,400,000 -
Wizz Air ✔︎ €9 - 105 ✔︎

Find out more

Join our mailing list

Stay in touch and receive our monthly newsletter, campaign updates, event invites and more.