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Lawsuit for Carbon Neutrality Claim: Delta Airlines – ‘the world's first carbon neutral airline’

In early 2020, Delta Airlines pledged it would spend $1billion to mitigate all greenhouse gases it produced from its business during the decade. This was a bold and exciting goal – to be a carbon neutral business – even more impressive for the business to be an international airline. This was also a phenomenal marketing opportunity; Delta set out its new catchphrase “the world’s first carbon-neutral airline” and produced this on emails, social media posts, adverts and even its napkins.

The lawsuit

Now a class action lawsuit has been filed in the US alleging that Delta’s ‘carbon neutral’ message is false and misleading. The lawsuit alleges the majority of the Delta’s neutrality claim relies upon carbon offsetting which it describes as “junk offsets which do nothing to counteract the climate crisis”. It further alleges that “customers would have purchased Delta tickets believing they had no impact on the environment and many would not have bought them without the carbon neutrality claim.”

The claim describes Delta as engaging in greenwashing, or alternatively, the act of offering services that are branded as more eco-friendly than they actually are. “Greenwashing is difficult for consumers to identify, consumers cannot verify green attributes” in goods or services and must rely on corporate suggestions or labels argue the attorneys representing the claimants.

More than just a climate change case

The claimants are demanding that Delta pay damages to customers for misrepresenting itself as a carbon-neutral airline in marketing campaigns and advertisements that encouraged consumers to pay higher prices.

“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.”

The Washington Post reported that Delta missed its target for carbon neutrality in 2021, and therefore spent $137 million to buy carbon offsets to neutralize 27 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Delta disputes the lawsuit and notes it is seeking to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. In addition, Delta has stated that since March 2022, it “has fully transitioned its focus away from carbon offsets toward decarbonization of our operations, by investing in sustainable aviation fuel and more fuel-efficient aircraft.”

 The future of carbon offsetting

The debate surrounding the use of carbon offset to effectively neutralise the carbon footprint of a business has received damning press over the last 2 years. Patrick Edmond of Altair Advisory, a leading expert on sustainable aviation, stated

“Preventing deforestation is really important, and turning the preservation of forests into a "solution" for big emitters (in other words, creating carbon offsets), may seem like a good idea in theory, but in practice, this doesn't seem to work well.”

“Based on the reported numbers, Delta paid about $5 per tonne of carbon offset. Prices like that are towards the junk end of the market, and there’s been a whole series of recent exposés of shoddy practices in the offset industry: selling offsets that don’t exist, failing to ensure that the planted trees aren’t cut down later, and so on. There’s a major tightening-up under way in the offset industry, led by organisations such as the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market (ICVCM) and VCMI.”

 Expect more lawsuits

The Delta lawsuit is just one of many. A Dutch court heard claims made against KLM in respect of greenwashing earlier this year, and Evian is being sued over its carbon neutrality claims. Each lawsuit adds to the debate on business, claims of sustainability and greenwashing, and the media coverage causes distrust by the public.

The sowing of distrust also makes it more challenging for businesses who are spending time and money earnestly in the pursuit of a more sustainable future to publicise their endeavours for fear of media scrutiny or legal claims. The best advice is perhaps “don’t overclaim, and ideally have your sustainability claims validated by a respected third party.  Only time will tell whether any of the lawsuits are successful and how the results of these feed into the future of sustainable business and aviation.


The information included in this article is considered true and correct at the date of publication; changes to rules and regulation made after the time of publication may impact on the accuracy of the information referenced or inferred to in this article. The information in the article may change without notice and Martyn Fiddler Aviation is in no way liable for the accuracy of any information printed or stored or in any way interpreted and used by the user. This article or the information contained in it is not provided or intended to be used as advice of any form.
If you have any doubts or would like to discuss any aspect of this article, please do not hesitate to contact one of our experts who will be happy to discuss your individual circumstance.
About the author

Heather Gordon is Legal Director at Martyn Fiddler Aviation. Heather joined the team in 2013 having previously practiced within a leading Isle of Man law ...

Contact Heather Gordon
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