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Airlines’ Greenwashing and Contributing to Carbon Pollution

  • 22 Jun 2023
  • 9 min read

For Prelims: Greenwashing, Airlines’ Contribution to Carbon Pollution, Climate Change, GHG, Paris Agreement, SAF.

For Mains: Concerns over Airlines’ Greenwashing and Contributing to Carbon Pollution.

Why in News?

A lawsuit has been filed against Delta Air Lines in the US, accusing the company of engaging in Greenwashing by making false and misleading claims about its Sustainability Efforts and being a "Green" and carbon-neutral airline.

  • The airline claimed to be carbon neutral from March 2020 and offered to offset the carbon emissions from customers' flights.
  • However, media reports and investigations have highlighted loopholes and inaccuracies in Delta's carbon offsetting process.

What is Greenwashing?

  • The term greenwashing was first used in 1986 by Jay Westerveld, an American environmentalist and researcher.
  • Greenwashing is the practice in which firms and governments mark all kinds of activities as climate-friendly, as something that would lead to emissions reduction, or avoidance of emissions.
    • Many of these claims are unverifiable, misleading, or dubious.
    • While it helps in boosting the image of the entity, they do nothing in the fight against climate change.
    • Several multinational corporations, including oil giants like Shell and BP, and Coca Cola have faced accusations of greenwashing.
  • Greenwashing is prevalent across a whole range of environmental activities.
    • Developed countries are often accused of greenwashing their normal business investments in developing countries by highlighting climate co-benefits of the financial flows, sometimes with very little justification.
  • Greenwashing is considered an unfair trade practice under the Consumer Protection Act, 2019 in India, which prohibits misleading claims, but implementation of these regulations remains a challenge.

What are the Concerns Related to Airlines in Carbon Pollution?

  • Major Airlines Indulge in Greenwashing:
    • Investigations and studies in (Guardian investigation and Greenpeace report) have revealed flaws and deceptiveness in the carbon offset systems of major airlines, casting doubt on the industry's carbon neutrality assertions.
      • Other airlines, including KLM (Netherlands-based airline) and Ryanair (Europe), Air Canada and Swiss Airlines have faced similar allegations of greenwashing and misleading customers with claims of being environmentally friendly.
    • These findings raise concerns about the credibility of the International Air Transport Association's net zero pledge by 2050, which experts criticized as an act of greenwashing.
  • Airlines Significant Contributors to Carbon Pollution:
    • Flying is a significant contributor to carbon pollution, in 2021 aviation accounted for over 2% of global energy-related CO2 emissions according to International Energy Agency (IEA).
    • Aviation emissions could grow by 300-700% by 2050, per estimates.
      • A single round trip from Mumbai to L.A. generates 4.8 tonnes of CO2 (equivalent to charging 6,00,000 smartphones).
  • Blind Spots in Offset System:
    • There is a lack of universally recognized standards and tracking mechanisms for counting carbon offsets, making it difficult to ensure additionality—the reduction of emissions that would not have occurred otherwise.
    • Certification organizations play a role in connecting buyers and sellers of carbon credits, but the oversight and verification processes have been criticized for allowing misleading projects and phantom credits.

What are Carbon Credits?

  • Carbon Credits (Carbon offsets) are received by the companies when they invest in offset projects such as environmental conservation, energy efficiency or renewable energy which reduce, avoid, or remove greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.
  • These credits represent the amount of carbon dioxide that would have been removed from the atmosphere through these initiatives.
  • Each credit is equivalent to one metric ton of CO2, which contributes to global warming.
  • Companies use these credits to offset their carbon emissions in one area, like airplane travel, by claiming that they are reducing emissions somewhere else, such as in distant rainforests.
    • The voluntary carbon-offset market is expected to grow significantly, from USD 2 billion in 2020 to approximately USD 250 billion by 2050, according to a report by Morgan Stanley in 2023.

How does Greenwashing Affect Carbon Credits?

  • Informal Markets:
    • There are credits available for all kinds of activities such as for growing trees, for planting a certain kind of crop, for installing energy-efficient equipment in office buildings.
      • The credits for such activities are often certified by unofficial third-party companies and sold to others.
      • Such transactions have been flagged for lack of integrity and double counting.
  • Credibility:
    • Countries like India or Brazil had accumulated huge carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol and wanted these to be transitioned to the new market being set up under the Paris Agreement.
      • But many developed countries resisted this, questioning the integrity of the credits and claiming they did not accurately represent reductions in emissions.
  • Lead to Lack of Transparency:
    • Greenwashing can lead to a lack of transparency in the carbon offset market.
    • Companies may provide limited information about the projects they support, making it difficult to verify their claims and assess the actual environmental impact.
    • This lack of transparency undermines the credibility and trustworthiness of the carbon credit system.
  • Diversion from Real Emission Reductions:
    • Greenwashing practices may divert attention and resources away from genuine efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
    • Companies may rely on carbon credits as a way to offset their emissions without making significant changes to their operations or adopting more sustainable practices.
    • This can impede progress toward meaningful emission reductions and the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Way Forward

  • The complex nature of carbon offsetting and the lack of consensus on effective standards present challenges in implementing and enforcing regulations. Therefore, there is a need for better regulation, transparency, and understanding of carbon offset programs.
  • The focus should shift towards decarbonizing commercial aviation through Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), hydrogen, and full-electric propulsion techniques, despite the obstacles faced by these alternatives.
  • As the push for environmental sustainability grows, there is a need for better regulation, scrutiny, and development of more impactful strategies to reduce aviation's carbon footprint.

UPSC Civil Services Examination Previous Year Question (PYQ)

Q. Regarding “carbon credits”, which one of the following statements is not correct? (2011)

(a) The carbon credit system was ratified in conjunction with the Kyoto Protocol
(b) Carbon credits are awarded to countries or groups that have reduced greenhouse gases below their emission quota
(c) The goal of the carbon credit system is to limit the increase of carbon dioxide emission
(d) Carbon credits are traded at a price fixed from time to time by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Ans: (d)

Source: TH

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