Aviation sector in greenwashing court battle

Airlines from across Europe are facing legal action over claims they have been greenwashing their efforts to fight climate change.

European consumer group BEUC and 23 of its member organisations from 19 countries have filed a complaint to the European Commission and the network of consumer protection authorities (CPC) denouncing misleading climate-related claims by 17 European airlines. According to legal analysis commissioned by BEUC, such claims breach the EU rules tackling unfair commercial practices.

“We are calling for a Europe-wide investigation into the issue and for the concerned airlines – and the entire sector – to stop making claims that give consumers the impression that flying is sustainable,” BEUC explained. “This is simply untrue as flying is not sustainable and is not bound to become so in the near future. Where airlines have proposed consumers to pay extra ‘green’ fees based on such misleading claims, CPC authorities should request airlines to reimburse their customers.”

BEUC said its members have identified numerous examples of misleading practices targeting consumers:

  • Claims that paying extra credits can “offset”, “neutralise”, or “compensate” the CO2 emissions of a flight are factually incorrect as the climate benefits of offsetting activities are highly uncertain, while the harm caused by the CO2 emissions from air travel is certain.
  • Airlines are misleading consumers when charging them more to contribute to the development of ‘Sustainable Aviation Fuels’ (SAFs): Such fuels are not market-ready and recently adopted EU legislation sets very low targets for how much they should represent in aircrafts’ fuel mix. This means that until SAFs will be massively available – beyond the end of the 2030s – they will at best only represent a minor share in planes’ kerosene tanks.
  • Implying that air travel can be “sustainable”, “responsible” and “green” is deceptive. None of the strategies deployed by the aviation sector are currently able to prevent Greenhouse Gas emissions. It is important to stop these claims as with air traffic set to increase, emissions will keep rising for years to come.

Ursula Pachl, BEUC’s deputy director general of BEUC, explained: “When it is crystal clear that air travel causes a significant and increasing share of greenhouse gas emissions, it beggars belief that airlines freely lure consumers with climate-friendly messaging such as ‘CO2 compensated’ or ‘CO2 neutral’. We urge authorities to take the matter into their hands and crack down on this greenwashing practice seriously misleading consumers.

“Whether you pay a ‘green fare’ or not, your flight will still emit climate-harmful gases. Technological solutions to decarbonise aviation won’t become a massive-scale reality any time soon, so depicting flying as a sustainable mode of transport is pure greenwashing. At a time when many want to travel more sustainably, airlines should urgently stop offering consumers a fake peace of mind.”

She added: “Shifting consumer demand towards more sustainable transport modes is critical to cut emissions. Airlines must stop giving consumers the false impression that they are choosing a sustainable transport mode. In addition, decision makers must push for solutions to provide consumers with reliable, attractive, and sustainable alternatives such as higher-quality long-distance rail connections.”