Another airlines greenwashing caught out by courts once again

  • Post last modified:April 3, 2024
  • Reading time:6 mins read

An environmental non-profit has put another European airline in the hot-seat over its greenwashing – and once again won in court. It was a another damning nail in the coffin for dubious offsetting solutions to the climate crisis.

Airlines greenwashing – as usual

On 28 March, climate non-profit Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) won a case against airline Eurowings in the Cologne Regional Court in Germany.

Specifically, DUH was calling the airline out over its misleading sustainability claims. The company had been advertising that some of its flights were “CO2-neutral” because it “offsets” these. Accordingly, customers could pay a few euros to “offset” their emissions.

Eurowings uses an offsetting calculator to offer its passengers the opportunity to make their flights supposedly “CO2-neutral” by making a small financial contribution to forest protection and cooking stove projects.

However, the court ruled that the forest protection projects it used for the alleged offsetting are not suitable for achieving actual compensation. In particular, it found that forest projects cannot be operated for the same length of time as the carbon emitted by the flight remains in the atmosphere.

Previous research has rubbished airline’s offsetting claims. For instance, a 2021 investigation by Greenpeace Unearthed and the Guardian revealed that major airlines’ carbon neutral claims could not be verified. Notably, it investigated multiple forest carbon offset projects and found that:

despite multiple audits the reduced deforestation offsetting schemes used to justify eye-catching promises of carbon neutrality and guilt-free flying cannot prove they have produced enough carbon savings to justify these bold claims.

Responding to the new ruling, federal managing director of DUH Jürgen Resch said that:

the Cologne Regional Court has fully confirmed our legal opinion. An airline that pretends to offer its customers ‘CO2-neutral’ flights for a few euros more is acting in a highly misleading manner if it uses forest protection projects that are only secured for a few years.

With this trickery, Eurowings is trying to divert attention from the climate-damaging nature of its business model. The compensation projects that supposedly protect the forest are not suitable for neutralising the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the flights.

Air travel industry losing court battles all round

Naturally, Eurowings isn’t the first airline climate organisations have taken to task, either. In fact, some have just recently had their false climate solution comeuppance in the courts.

As the Canary’s Steve Topple reported in March, courts delivered damning and decisive verdicts against two other European air travel companies.

First, on 20 March a Dutch court ruled that the Dutch airline KLM had misled customers with its green claims.

Previously in 2020, the Dutch advertising regulator had ordered KLM  to change advertisements that misleadingly implied up to a 50% usage of so called “Sustainable Aviation Fuel” (SAF). In reality however, its biofuel only accounted for 0.18% of the airline’s fuel use in 2019.

So Fossielvrij NL (Fossil-free Netherlands) took the big polluter to court over its greenwashing advertisements. As Topple explained:

Most of the adverts were part of KLM’s “Fly Responsibly” campaign, which the airline says is an “awareness campaign”. They range from general statements such as “join us in creating a more sustainable future” to declarations about KLM’s use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), described as a “promising solution”.

Then, coinciding with this on 20 March, another Dutch court separately ruled that Schiphol airport would need to limit the number of flights it schedules.

You can’t “fly greener”

Invariably, courts and regulators have previously found multiple other airlines guilty of greenwashing.

In 2020, the UK’s advertising watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned a Ryanair advert claiming it was the UK’s lowest-emissions airline.

Meanwhile, an advert by Qatar Airways at the UEFA Euros 2020 football tournament suggested without any evidence that it could help passengers “Fly Greener”. So, anti-corporate advertising group AdBlock Bristol called for the UK’s ASA to crack down on its greenwashing.

Following this, the Austrian Advertising Council reprimanded Austrian Airlines in 2022. In this instance, the airline had promoted misleading advertisements about “CO2-neutral” flying. After that, a consumer rights group took the company to court in 2023 and of course won against its misleading claims.

Then, in 2023 the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) conducted an investigation into offsetting claims in the airline industry. From this, it accused Ryanair of using misleading sustainability claims.

It goes to show that big airline polluters won’t clean up their act voluntarily. However, campaigners can – and will – force them to stop their blatant greenwashing through the courts.

Spokesperson for aviation monitoring group Stay Grounded network Magdalena Heuwieser said of the news on the Eurowings ruling:

Offsets are a licence to pollute. They legitimise business as usual, don’t work, and can lead to new injustices. The industry cannot buy itself out of the necessity to reduce flights. Greenwashing is a major obstacle to the changes that need to happen to counter climate collapse. The sad truth is that the only green plane is the one that stays on the ground.

Feature image via Lasse B/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1200 by 900, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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