LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday claims Delta Air Lines has improperly described itself as "the world's first carbon-neutral airline," because the carbon offset market that the company relies upon to support its boast is fundamentally unreliable and inaccurate.
Delta traveler Mayanna Berrin filed the putative class action lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles accusing Delta of false advertising and other violations of California's consumer and business laws. She seeks to represent a nationwide class of Delta flyers, or alternatively, just those in California.
"Since March 2020, Plaintiff purchased Delta flights at a market premium due to her belief that by flying Delta she engaged in more ecologically conscious air travel and participated in a global transition away from carbon emissions," according to Berrin's complaint. "During this entire period, Defendant still produced massive amounts of CO2, and its reliance on the voluntary carbon offset market in no way prevents its 'carbon-neutral' representations from being false and misleading."
Carbon offsets are a way for companies to reduce their carbon footprint by investing, and thus acquiring credits, in other businesses that are actively reducing carbon emissions through, for example, renewable energy or forest protection projects. Delta's carbon-neutral claim is based on such investments rather on it cuttings its own carbon emissions, according to the complaint.
Unfortunately, the lawsuit said, the voluntary carbon offset market is self-regulated, leading to “multiple, competing certification’ standards and a dizzying array of organizations or companies that act as middlemen, authenticating supposed greenhouse gas reductions and connecting credit buyers and sellers.”
And the markets' lack of reliability is underscored, according to the complaint, by an analysis that found that in the world’s largest carbon offset program, which primarily arranges for the purchase of renewable energy offsets, an estimated 52% of the approved offsets came from projects that would very likely have been built anyway.
“This lawsuit is without legal merit," Delta said in response to the allegations. "Delta is a vigorous advocate for more sustainable aviation, adopting industry-leading climate goals as we work towards achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050."
Delta committed to carbon neutrality in March 2020, according to the airline's statement, and since March 31, 2022, has transitioned its focus away from carbon offsets toward decarbonization of its operations, including by investing in sustainable aviation fuel and renewing its fleet with more fuel-efficient aircraft.
Delta, according to the lawsuit, has like many other corporations used its commitment to carbon neutrality as a selling point because consumers are more willing than ever to pay a premium price in the belief that their spending doesn't harm the planet.
For example, Delta said on Earth Day 2021 that it would purchase more than $13 million in offsets to mitigate 13 million metric tons of 2020 emissions, according to the complaint. The investments went to protecting half a million acres in an Indonesian peat swamp forest and a Cambodian wildlife sanctuary.
"These representations were clearly made with the intent to encourage air travel on Delta," the lawsuit states.
But "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," it adds.
The result, according to the plaintiff, is that the offsets represent low environmental integrity and credibility, misleading consumers when they are presented as explicit environmental claims.
The lawsuit seeks to proceed as a class action and unspecified damages for violations of California’s Consumers Legal Remedies Act, California’s False Advertising, Business and Professions Code, and California’s Business and Professions Code.
The plaintiff is represented by Jonathan Haderlein and Krikor Kouyoumdjian of Haderlein and Kouyoumdjian LLP in Northridge, California, and by L. David Russell of Russell Law PC in Manhattan Beach, California.Follow @edpettersson
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