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Major European airlines mislead customers with carbon offset credits, report says

Major European airlines mislead customers with carbon offset credits, report says


Don’t believe all the hype. Purchasing carbon offset credits doesn’t clean up aviation’s pollution problem.

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Lufthansa Boeing 747
A Lufthansa Boeing 747-430 landing in Barcelona on September 30th, 2022. 
Photo by Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Airlines are selling passengers false hope that they can cancel out their flight’s negative impact on the environment, according to a new report. It probed eight of the biggest airlines in Europe and found that many of them funnel money into highly suspect carbon offset projects that might not actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Purchasing carbon offset credits has become a popular way for corporations to absolve themselves of responsibility for the climate-damaging pollution they produce. Airlines might offer customers the option to pay for the offset credits themselves or might have their own commitments to offset emissions from their company’s flights. The money from those credits is supposed to support renewable energy or forestry projects that prevent some amount of carbon dioxide emissions from building up in the atmosphere and heating the planet.

Airlines are purchasing low-quality credits from those problematic projects and passing them off to customers as a viable climate solution

In reality, carbon offset markets are riddled with ineffective projects that don’t actually reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Nevertheless, airlines are purchasing low-quality credits from those problematic projects and passing them off to customers as a viable climate solution, according to the new report commissioned by environmental nonprofit group Carbon Market Watch.

“While not paying for their pollution, airlines are sending misleading climate neutrality signals to customers based on purchasing poor-quality carbon offsets. This bad practice must end,” Daniele Rao, a Carbon Market Watch expert on decarbonizing aviation and shipping, said in a press release.

Nearly all the airlines studied relied on forestry projects in developing countries that struggle to maintain those projects in the long term so that they can actually have a significant impact on climate change. The hope is that trees from these projects will draw in CO2 from the air and store it away so that it doesn’t heat the planet. Seems simple, right? Unfortunately, it’s not. If those trees aren’t kept alive and protected from threats like logging and fires for hundreds of years, they’ll release that CO2.

The report examined easyJet, Ryanair, Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France, KLM, Wizz Air, and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). It found that all but SAS support “low-quality offsetting projects.” And SAS isn’t completely in the clear — the airline just didn’t provide much information on carbon offset credits it purchased. When it comes to SAS, “Without further information on these projects it is not possible to assess the quality of the carbon credits,” the report says. It also flags that the companies studied paid very low prices for carbon offset credits that likely don’t reflect real-world costs for reducing CO2 emissions. The study was completed by Öko-Institut, a Germany-based environmental research and consulting institute.

The Verge reached out to each of the airlines and received responses from easyJet, Air France, and Lufthansa. Each company emphasized efforts to reduce emissions by modernizing their aircraft fleets and developing sustainable aviation fuels that generate less pollution. Air France and easyJet, in particular, said that those strategies for preventing pollution from flights take precedence over the additional efforts of their companies to offset pollution after it’s already been released.

A long history of failure

Last week, the Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) set a goal of reaching net-zero carbon dioxide emissions from international flights by 2050. That goal can only be reached if the focus is on preventing pollution rather than trying to find quick fixes to clean up the mess after the fact — especially when it comes to proposed fixes like carbon offset projects that already have a long history of failure. An investigation conducted last year by The Guardian and Greenpeace’s Unearthed project similarly found that 10 forest offset schemes supported by major airlines — including British Airways, easyJet, and United Airlines — didn’t reduce enough CO2 to back up airlines’ environmental claims.

“There is a genuine concern that the promotion of ‘carbon neutral’ flying via the purchase of carbon credits only encourages further growth in air travel at a time when we should, in the short term, be reducing demand until more sustainable forms of aviation become available,” the new report from Carbon Market Watch says.