A lawsuit against Delta Air Lines argues its claim of being the ‘world’s first carbon neutral airline’ is ‘misleading’ customers. Intrepid Travel has been accused of ‘greenwashing’ too. Rose Dykins reports

Delta Air Lines is facing a lawsuit over carbon neutrality claim which plaintiffs describe as “false and misleading.” This is due to its reliance on offsetting emissions – which the lawsuit argues is an inadequate solution for slowing global warming.

In 2020, the airline pledged US$1 billion towards becoming carbon neutral, and to manage its global greenhouse gas emissions over the next ten years. Its plans included buying carbon credits through the conservation of rainforest, wetlands and grasslands along with decreasing the use of jet fuel and increasing plane efficiency.

The lawsuit – filed in California in May – addresses Delta’s claim of being “the world’s first carbon-neutral airline”, which the airline has stated in several public formats, including adverts and on in-flight napkins.

The lawsuit says it is “demonstrably false” for Delta to claim carbon neutrality, due to its reliance on offsets that are inadequate for combatting the climate crisis. It alleges that customers will have chosen to buy air tickets with Delta believing they had no impact on the environment, and that many would not have done so without the carbon neutrality claim.

In response, a Delta spokesperson said: “This lawsuit is without legal merit. Delta is a vigorous advocate for more sustainable aviation, adopting industry-leading climate goals as we work towards achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“Delta committed to carbon neutrality in March 2020, and since 31 March 2022, has fully transitioned its focus away from carbon offsets toward decarbonisation of our operations, focusing our efforts on investing in sustainable aviation fuel, renewing our fleet for more fuel-efficient aircraft and implementing operational efficiencies.”

Krikor Kouyoumdjian, a partner with the legal firm Haderlein and Kouyoumdjian LLP, which is bringing the case told The Guardian: “The language carbon neutral is so provocative. When companies say: ‘Don’t worry about our emissions, they’re sorted,’ they are communicating complacency. They are letting consumers pay to feel better and not have to worry about the impact of their consumption. But that is counterfactual to reality. It is not something that you can pay away.

“When I hear ‘carbon neutral’, I think you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re not hurting the environment in any way. It’s like you don’t exist. That’s what the words mean to any rational person: that we can participate in your business without any guilt.”

The argument of the case against Delta Air Lines draws attention to the market premium for green products, and suggests Delta has profited from a misleading environmental claim.

The case draws upon scientific and journalistic evidence that there are flaws in carbon credits from the unregulated voluntary market, which Delta has purchased.

Haderlein and Kouyoumdjian said they wanted the company to drop the carbon neutrality claim and explain the full scale of the pollution that their business causes.

Attorney Jonathan Haderlein also told The Guardian: “The voluntary carbon offset market cannot meaningfully guarantee carbon neutrality from a company in the way it’s currently being operated. The market is replete with severe methodological errors that appear both intentional and unintentional.

He adds: “This is more than a climate change case. This is also a business case. People are paying more for these greener products. If a company like Delta is raking that premium in by claiming they do it first and then doing a huge advertising blitz to try to get people flying again, we think that’s unfair to other companies that are buying higher-quality offsets or doing far better sustainability. And frankly, unfair to consumers.”

A judge will decide whether or not to progress the case against the airline.

Intrepid Travel In other news, Intrepid Travel has come under fire from the UK Advertising Standards Authority because of an advert the company ran on the London Underground in November 2022.

The ASA received a complaint from a member of the public about Intrepid’s use of the phrase “planet-friendly small group adventures”. The ASA subsequently upheld the complaint on the basis that the claim was “not adequately substantiated”.

Zina Bencheikh, managing director EMEA for Intrepid Travel, told Globetrender: “As travel’s largest certified B Corp, we are committed to transparency and that means facing up to our mistakes.

“We fully accept that we did not adequately substantiate the term ‘planet-friendly’ and should not have included it in our advertising. As a result, we have removed the phrase from our marketing globally and have begun a review around how we can better talk about our trips in future.

“For the past 34 years, Intrepid Travel tours have been designed to minimise their environmental impact, using public transport and low carbon options wherever possible. We have been carbon neutral since 2010, but we know that is no longer enough.

“That’s why we are taking steps to decarbonise our business in line with our science-based carbon reduction targets and Climate Commitment Plan. As a certified B Corp, we are open about our impact and make public reports on our progress.

“Greenwashing has become all too prevalent in the travel industry and it’s a positive step that regulators are becoming more stringent around advertising claims related to climate change and the environment.”

In January 2023, a report in The Guardian found that “more than 90 per cent of rainforest carbon offsets by biggest certifier are worthless”.