As It Happens

Delta Air Lines faces class-action lawsuit over carbon neutral claim

A California woman is launching a class-action lawsuit against Delta, alleging the company’s claim of being “the first carbon-neutral airline” is bogus.

Lawsuit centres around controversial carbon offsetting — a practice the company says it has moved away from

A man, pictured from behind sitting outside near some palm trees, looks up at the clear blue sky as a Delta commercial jet flies overhead,
Delta Air Lines is facing a class-action lawsuit over its carbon neutral claims, but the company says it has 'no legal merit.' (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Mayanna Berrin thought she was doing the right thing for the environment by choosing to fly Delta Air Lines. Now, she's convinced it was all a sham.

The California woman has filed a class-action lawsuit against Delta, alleging the company's claim of being "the first carbon-neutral airline" is bogus.

"Consumers like me who believe in doing whatever they can to help with the climate crisis should not be misled by companies," Berrin said in an emailed statement to CBC.

"This lawsuit is about companies like Delta telling the truth about what they are doing and how much they are polluting."

Delta says the proposed lawsuit — which has not yet been certified — is "without legal merit."

"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," the company said in a emailed statement.

Carbon offsets 'largely worthless': Investigation

The lawsuit accuses Delta of making misleading claims about being "carbon neutral" in its press materials and merchandise. And it centres around the company's history of using carbon credits to offset its emissions, a controversial practice Delta says it has moved away from over the last year.

Companies and organizations around the world — including the Canadian government — buy carbon credits which are, in theory, supposed to offset carbon releases by funding projects that absorb carbon dioxide out of the air. Often, that means rainforest protection and re-forestation. 

But in recent years, the carbon offset industry has come under scrutiny by journalists and scientists who say its benefits are greatly exaggerated — and that, in some cases, it may even do more harm than good.

"The very specific offsets that Delta purchased … were not, in fact, capable of creating the emissions reductions that they claim in either the timeline they claim, or even really at all," Jonathan Haderlein, Berrin's attorney who filed the suit, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

"We truly believe that we're not guessing on the science. We think science is fully on our side."

An aerial shot of a river running through a rainforest.
Often, carbon offset projects focus on protecting or re-foresting carbon sinks like rainforests, but critics say the merits are vastly overblown. (Pedro Pardo/AFP/ Getty Images)

In January, the U.K. newspaper the Guardian published the results of a nine-month investigation into carbon offsets in collaboration with German weekly Die Zeit and SourceMaterial, a non-profit investigative journalism organisation. It found more than 90 per cent of rainforest offsets by the biggest suppliers were "largely worthless."

The investigation centred around three separate studies that called carbon offset into question, and was backed up by extensive interviews with scientists, industry insiders and Indigenous communities.

In some cases, researchers found little to no evidence of deforestation reductions in the targeted areas. In other cases, they determined the threats to the designated forests were greatly overexaggerated.

In projects where deforestation was reduced, there are human rights concerns. In Peru, residents told the Guardian they were forcibly driven from their lands to make way for protected areas.

Even before these studies were published, critics of carbon offset argued it provided companies the illusion of taking climate action without having to make real efforts to reduce emissions.

A 2022 report by the NewClimate Institute noted that while reforestation projects can suck up carbon, they are not ideal solutions because forests can be razed or destroyed by wildfires, re-releasing carbon into the air.

Delta 'fully transitioned its focus away from carbon offsets'

Delta, meanwhile, says it has moved past carbon offsets.

"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," the company said. 

The airline first announced its plans to become carbon neutral in 2020, with a goal of reaching net-zero by 2050.

But the lawsuit notes that, despite its stated long-term goal, Delta has been billing itself as "the world's first carbon-neutral airline" in ads, press releases, LinkedIn posts, podcasts, and in-flight napkins, for the last three years.

"Our client's perspective is that when a company states that they are carbon neutral, especially if they say that they are a carbon neutral airline, that's a statement of fact," Haderlein said. 

"That's a promise that the green efforts that they're making on a global corporate level based on the investments that they choose to put into place, have meaningfully and substantially mitigated the emissions of the company on a global basis."

A Delta commercial airplane on a tarmac with snowcapped mountains on the horizon behind it.
Delta says it's goal has always been to achieve net-zero by 2050, and that it has 'fully transitioned' away from carbon offsetting to achieve that goal. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Richard Marcus, professor at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, said the case will likely be challenging for the plaintiffs and expects "vigorous resistance" to class certification.

If the suit moves forward, Haderlein says he plans to collect testimony from the scientists and other experts who have worked to debunk carbon offsetting.

It's not the first lawsuit to take companies to task over their environmental claims, and he suspects it won't be the last.

"I think that the reality is that, you know, if a company is making best efforts and is clear to consumers that, you know, it's going to be a long process, then they haven't violated the law and there shouldn't be an issue," he said.

"But I think that there are other companies who have been far too loose with their use of words like 'carbon-neutral.' And I think we would hope that other people are inspired to also hold them to account."

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press. Interview with Jonathan Haderlein produced by Magan Carty.

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