Delta Air Lines Sued for Carbon-Neutral Misrepresentation

A proposed class action lawsuit filed in federal court on Tuesday asserts that Delta Air Lines misrepresented itself as the world’s “first carbon-neutral airline” when it was actually using questionable carbon offsets.

Carbon offsetting can be accomplished through the voluntary carbon offset market. The voluntary carbon offset market allows companies to buy carbon credits associated with projects that are said to counteract pollution, like reforestation, or to avoid the release of additional carbon dioxide, like preventing deforestation. Companies then use these credits to offset their own polluting activities rather than engaging in emissions-reducing activities themselves.

The lawsuit argues that such carbon offsets are speculative, likely temporary, non-immediate, and would have happened regardless of Delta’s investment. Instead, the suit says, a carbon credit must represent a climate-positive activity that would not have happened otherwise in order to be considered valid. Plaintiff Mayanna Berrin, of Glendale, California, says she would not have purchased Delta flights or would have paid less for those flights had she known about the true nature of Delta’s claims.

The complaint outlines a variety of reasons that Delta’s offsets may have had next to no climate benefit. For instance, according to the complaint, Delta’s 2021 agricultural, forestry, and other land use offsets were verified by carbon offset vendor Verra. Verra was the subject of an investigation by The Guardian that determined that more than 90 percent of the vendor’s rainforest offsets had no actual climate benefit. Delta’s 2021 offsets portfolio was 50 percent renewable energy offsets, 44 percent agricultural forestry and other land use offsets, and six percent renewable offsets, according to the complaint. 

Environmental initiatives have been a popular marketing focus for many companies in recent years. However, some have accused these companies of “greenwashing,” meaning falsely representing their goods and services as much less harmful to the environment than they actually are. The complaint notes that consumers face an uphill battle when trying to determine whether a company’s eco-friendly claims are valid or simply greenwashing. It cites a study that found that over half of consumers in the control group believed a company’s greenwashed claims were reliable. It also cites an experiment that found that consumers across demographics were willing to pay more for products with carbon-neutral labeling.

The complaint further asserts that the voluntary carbon offset market is self-regulated, lacks standardization across its various certification standards, and is “plagued by structural inabilities to track genuine progress and poor mathematical modeling.”

Delta announced in 2020 that it was going “fully carbon neutral.” Delta CEO Ed Bastian stated that Delta would achieve its goal by using carbon removal and transitioning to sustainable fuels, according to the complaint. The complaint further quotes Bastian on carbon offsets: they are “not the solution, there are not enough to go around… carbon offsets have a lot of efficacy issues, and quite honestly in some places they do more harm than they do good, or pay people to not do harm, that is not really helping our planet.” 

Additional Reading

Delta Air Lines Sued Over Carbon Neutrality Claims, TIME (May 30, 2023)

Delta faces lawsuit alleging its “carbon-neutral” claim is greenwashing, CBS News (May 31, 2023)

Berrin v. Delta Air Lines Complaint

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