Who: The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) and the European Commission (EC)
Where: European Union
When: 22 June 2023
Law stated as at: 4 July 2023
BEUC and some of its members have challenged airlines in a complaint to the European Commission and the network of consumer protection authorities (CPC). The BEUC and its member organisations condemned misleading climate-related claims made by the airlines. An analysis commissioned by BEUC found that such claims allegedly violate EU rules on unfair commercial practices, under the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive.
BEUC is calling on the Commission to investigate the issue and clarify that the aviation industry should refrain from making claims that give consumers the impression that flying is sustainable. It also challenges that in cases where airlines have proposed extra “green” fees that are supported by misleading claims, CPC authorities should request that airlines reimburse consumers.
BEUC identified a number of misleading practises by the airlines that target consumers and raise concerns:
- The harm caused by the CO2 emissions from air travel is certain and claiming that paying additional fees in order to ”offset”, “neutralise”, or ”compensate” for the CO2 emissions of a flight is factually incorrect and uncertain.
- Airlines are charging consumers to support the development of sustainable aviation fuels, which will at best only be available for a minor share of planes’ kerosene tanks beyond the 2030s. In addition, the EU legislation still sets very low targets for how much these fuels should represent in aircraft fuel mixes. These claims are misleading the consumers into believing that such fuels are market-ready when they are not.
- None of the current strategies set up by the aviation industry are suppressing Greenhouse Gas emissions, and with air traffic set to increase, it is likely that emissions will keep rising for years to come. It is therefore imperative that these claims that air travel can be ”sustainable”, ”responsible”, and ”green” are stopped, as they are misleading and disingenuous.
Air traffic impacts and its associated noise and emissions are summarised in the European Aviation Environmental Report 2022 along with recommendations for increasing environmental protection. European Commissioner for Transport, Adina Valean, noted that a great deal of progress has been made since the previous report, which is reflected in lower CO2 emissions per passage kilometre and improved aircraft noise performance.
The deputy director general of BEUC, Ursula Pachl, urged authorities to take the matter into their own hands and crack down on the greenwashing practise that is misleading consumers in a serious way. Pachl noted that decision-makers must push for solutions to provide consumers with attractive and reliable transport alternatives. She stated that ”whether you pay a “green fare” or not, your flight will still emit climate-harmful gases. Technological solutions to decarbonize aviation won’t become a massive-scale reality any time soon, so depicting flying as a sustainable mode of transport is unmitigated greenwashing. At a time when many want to travel more sustainably, airlines should urgently stop offering consumers fake peace of mind.” Pachl observed that giving consumers false impressions that they are choosing a sustainable mode of transport by flying must stop, using messages such as ”CO2 compensated” or ”CO2 neutral”.
Why this matters:
Greenwashing continues to be a hot topic and the airline industry is the latest to receive scrutiny from regulators. This complaint is particularly interesting as air travel by its very nature is challenging to justify from an environmental perspective. However, there may be genuine scenarios where choosing on flight over another may be more sustainable, and consumers choosing to fly (and the environment) may benefit from this information. The outcome of this complaint will be interesting to see as its principles could also apply to other industries that are inherently environmentally unfriendly but where better choices could be made.