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A proposed consumer class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that Delta Air Lines made “false and misleading” claims of being the world’s first carbon-neutral airline while relying on invalid carbon offsets.
Delta should pay damages to customers for misrepresenting itself as a carbon-neutral airline in marketing campaigns and advertisements that persuaded customers to purchase more expensive tickets that they believed had no impact on the environment, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit, filed by California resident Mayanna Berrin in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, said Delta premised their carbon neutrality on the purchase of carbon offsets from the voluntary carbon market, rather than achieving carbon neutrality through sustainable fuels and carbon removals as initially promised.
“Nearly all offsets issued by the voluntary carbon offset market overpromise and underdeliver on their total carbon impact due to endemic methodological errors and fraudulent accounting on behalf of offset vendors,” her attorneys wrote in a complaint.
The voluntary carbon offset market is an arrangement of companies and non-governmental organizations that facilitate investment in green programs like anti-deforestation and renewable energy. In exchange for their investment in these projects, companies receive carbon offsets in the form of credits that verify the amount of carbon that wasn’t released because of the company’s investments in offsets.
Delta has purchased credits from projects including wind and solar projects in India, an Indonesian swamp forest, and a Cambodian wildlife sanctuary, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleged the actual operation of the airline is not carbon neutral and that customers would not have purchased tickets on those Delta flights — or would have paid substantially less for such tickets — had they known carbon neutrality claims were misleading.
The lawsuit comes three years after Delta announced it would go fully carbon neutral, which means it would cancel out all of the greenhouse gas emissions it produces.
Delta pledged $1 billion to mitigate all emissions from its business over the next decade, with plans to buy carbon credits, increasing the efficiency of airlines and reducing jet fuel usage. The company touted itself as the first carbon-neutral airline worldwide in advertisements, press releases, LinkedIn posts, podcasts and in-flight napkins.
Delta spokesperson Grant Myatt said the lawsuit is “without legal merit.”
“Delta committed to carbon neutrality in March 2020, and since March 31, 2022, has fully transitioned its focus away from carbon offsets toward decarbonization of our operations, focusing our efforts on investing in sustainable aviation fuel, renewing our fleet for more fuel-efficient aircraft and implementing operational efficiencies,” Myatt said in an email.
The aviation industry accounts for more than 2% of global carbon emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. The sector is one of the most energy-intensive forms of consumption, and passenger demand and cargo volumes are set to increase in the coming decades, putting the sector at odds with global decarbonization targets.
Global airlines have committed to net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century, in part by buying offsets that critics argue do not lower the airline’s actual emissions. Research published last year by the campaign group Transport & Environment suggests the aviation sector can’t align with net-zero goals and reduce its carbon footprint without reducing the number of the flights.