Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines, criticized industry-wide greenwashing practices related to carbon offsetting schemes while speaking at a Politico event titled “Reauthorising the Federal Aviation Administration”.
Kirby said these schemes are a “fraud” adding that most of the eco-initiatives used by airlines “are either forests that were never going to be cut down or trees that were going to be planted anyway.”
Essentially, carbon offsetting schemes allow individuals and companies to invest in environmental projects worldwide by purchasing “carbon credits”. The idea behind it is to balance out the carbon footprint, which is the total amount of carbon emissions generated by a particular entity.
As part of its “climate commitment”, United Airlines says that “unlike other airlines, we’re looking beyond using carbon offsets”, adding: “We believe carbon offsets simply don’t go far enough to address the emissions caused by our operations. To achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, we’ll aim to tackle emissions at their source.”
The US airline states that the priority areas to tackle GHG emissions are focused on sustainable fuels and “direct air capture” technology, which, it says, can do the work of 40 million trees.
Previously, international non-governmental organisations like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and World Wildlife Fund-UK have criticised carbon offset projects, arguing that these schemes encourage a culture of climate pollution and are often misleading.
A 2021 paper published by the University of Queensland and University of Surrey studied 37 airlines’ communications on carbon offsets and concluded that more than 44% of airlines’ green claims mislead consumers – with some airlines, such as Air Canada and Swiss Airlines, making as many as 100% of their claims misleading.
In July 2021, Ryanair introduced carbon offsetting schemes — a “Carbon Calculator” and a “Partial Contribution” option — offering passengers an avenue to offset their flight emissions. Later on, in January 2023, the low-cost airline had to revise its carbon offset scheme after the Netherlands Authorities for Consumers and Markets (ACM) found its sustainability claims to be misleading.
“Businesses must be honest and clear about the sustainability claims they make. Even with CO2 compensation schemes, flying remains a highly polluting way of traveling. Airlines may offer CO2 compensation schemes, but they cannot give the impression that CO2 compensation will make flying sustainable,” said Edwin van Houten, director of the Netherlands ACM’s Consumer Department.
Another study published in October 2022 and commissioned by Carbon Market Watch revealed deep holes in the effectiveness of voluntary climate action taken by eight major European airlines. Misleading claims of “carbon neutral” flying, a dependence on poor quality carbon offsets and the low cost of a tonne of CO2 that customers can pay to offset are just a few of the problems highlighted in the report.