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EU Launches Greenwashing Action Against Airlines Over Emissions Offsetting Claims

The European Commission announced that it has launched action, alongside the EU consumer authorities, against 20 airlines over misleading greenwashing practices, with a particular focus on claims made by the airlines that the CO2 emissions from flying could be offset by paying additional fees to support climate projects or the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

In a letter sent by the Commission and the Network of Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) Authorities, the airlines are invited to outline proposals to bring their practices in line with EU consumer law, and warned that they may face enforcement actions by the CPC authorities if they fail to take steps to solve the concerns, including sanctions.

The Commission’s action follows the launch of a complaint last year by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) targeting misleading climate-related claims by several European airlines, and calling on European authorities to require airlines to stop making claims aimed at giving consumers the impression that flying is sustainable, as well as to have the airlines reimburse customers for extra “green fees” paid based on misleading environmental claims.

The EU’s announcement is the latest in a series of greenwashing-related actions against European airlines, including a recent ruling in a Dutch court finding that KLM’s claims about the environmental sustainability of aviation were misleading, and another ruling last year in Austria that Austrian Airlines misled the public when it published ads offering CO2-neutral flights that used 100% SAF.

According to the EU Commission’s statement, potentially misleading practices by the airlines that have been identified include creating the incorrect impression that additional fees to finance climate projects or the use of alternative fuels can reduce or fully counterbalance CO2 emissions, using the term “sustainable aviation fuel” without clearly justifying the fuels’ environmental impact, using terms such as “green”, “sustainable” or “responsible” in an absolute way, and claiming that the airline is moving toward environmental performance such as net zero emissions without clear and verifiable commitments, targets and an independent monitoring system. Additional practices identified included presenting a “calculator” of a flight’s emissions without providing scientific proof on the reliability of the calculation, and presenting consumers with a comparison of the CO2 emissions of flights without providing sufficient information on the elements behind the comparisons.

The new action follows the launch by the EU Commission of a series of legislative proposals aimed at protecting consumers from greenwashing claims, including the recently adopted update to the unfair commercial practices directive (UCPD) and the consumer rights directive (CRD), to include green transition and circular economy-related aspects, which included rules banning unverified generic environmental claims such as “environmentally friendly,” or “biodegradable” and those based on emissions offsetting schemes, as well as the Directive on Green Claims, setting out minimum requirements for businesses to substantiate, communicate and verify their green claims, and requiring companies to have their voluntary environmental claims independently verified and proven with scientific evidence.