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Airline Greenwashing Called Out by EU as Misleading

Airline Greenwashing Called Out by EU as Misleading

The European Union has taken a decisive step in its battle against greenwashing, initiating action against 20 airlines for their false sustainability claims. This action targets the airlines' misleading assurances that CO2 emissions can be offset by additional fees toward climate projects or the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

The EU Commission and the Network of Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) Authorities requested airlines to align their practices with EU consumer law. They also warned them of potential enforcement actions and penalties for non-compliance.

This strong stance was triggered by a complaint filed last year by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), which demanded an end to misleading climate-related claims by several European airlines.

Greenwashing, CO2 and Misdirection

The CPC, overseen by various European consumer authorities, believes the airlines' practices could be misleading. It highlights that such potentially deceptive practices breach three articles of the EU's Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. The challenge was that airlines have not substantiated these claims with scientific evidence.

The CPC identified six possible areas of misleading practices. These include giving the false impression that additional fees for climate projects or SAF can neutralize or reduce CO2 emissions.

The CPC also raised concerns about the use and impact of the term ‘SAF’ by these airlines. It may mislead public perceptions into thinking the airlines' total emissions are lower than actually measured.

The misuse of terms such as 'green' and 'sustainable' was also flagged. This was due to the airlines using them in an absolute sense, suggesting that their operations are ecologically friendly.

Certain airlines have also claimed to be on the path to achieving net-zero emissions. However, they have yet to provide clear, verifiable commitments, targets, or independent monitoring.

Related: EU Sets Rules to Regulate ESG Ratings, Crack Down on Greenwashing

Flight CO2 Emissions Called into Question

Questions were also raised about the scientific proof behind CO2 calculators for specific flights used by airlines as well as comparisons of flights' emissions without sufficient supporting evidence.

The EC and CPC have not publicly named the 20 implicated airlines but have invited them to rectify the issues within a month. If appropriate action is not taken, further enforcement, including sanctions, could be considered.

Misleading Claims: A Persistent Problem for the Airline Industry?

This is not the only organizational scrutiny the airline industry has seen recently.

The UK's Advertising Standards Agency has also taken action against several airlines for greenwashing violations following the UK's exit from the EU in February 2020. Multiple instances of greenwashing offenses have come to light recently, with Dutch and Austrian courts finding KLM and Austrian Airlines, respectively, of misleading their customers about flight sustainability.

The EU strongly condemns these practices, stating that airlines cannot falsely claim to be sustainable, green, or responsible without clear targets and commitments. The emissions data must also undergo independent verification using evidence-based, scientific procedures.

In response to this airline probe (amongst other misleading corporate greenwashing), the EC is taking action. The organization has proposed a series of legislations to protect consumers from fraudulent green claims.

Věra Jourová, EU Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, emphasized that consumers deserve accurate information about their environmental footprint. Accordingly, they should not be misled by vague or false claims.

The Commission is resolved to empower consumers in the green transition and counteract greenwashing.

Getting Honest About Emissions

Developments such as this one bring the issue of corporate dishonesty front-and-center.

On one side of the equation, airlines assuredly set ambitious SAF adoption and decarbonization targets. But on the other side, corporate pressures and the reality of current technology may lead to ambiguity or downright misrepresentation.

Airlines putting out their own carbon emissions claims opens up the risk of data ambiguity at best and misrepresentation at worst.

The most glaring issue is that every corporation could have a different process on how they collect, codify, and account for carbon data. A lack of consistency opens the door to the very issue called out by the EU Commission and CPC. This is exactly where the trouble with greenwashing can occur.

Organizations like the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) help to standardize CO2 reduction and accurate emissions reporting. But the current shakeup within that organization due to a recent announcement about carbon credits has the group’s credibility called into question.

Read More: SBTi Disruptions Continue to Cause Confusion About Decarbonization

Despite the SBTi’s current issues, the only path forward is through the types of standards put forth by the group. Accurate, evidence-based emissions reporting and decarbonization strategizing are fundamental to progress.

The truth of the matter is that greenwashing does not advance anyone closer to the actual objective of stopping the planet’s climbing average temperatures—and the disastrous climate effects that follow. Scrutiny like the EU Commission’s warning to these airlines will hopefully reinforce the importance of understanding this very real problem we’re all working to solve.

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