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Delta faces lawsuit alleging its "carbon-neutral" claim is greenwashing

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Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian on upcoming summer travel 07:19

A Delta passenger is suing the airline over its claim that it is "carbon-neutral," alleging that the three-year-old pledge is nothing but greenwashing.

The suit, filed Tuesday in federal court in California, alleges that Delta's claim to be "the world's first carbon-neutral airline" is a sham. Greenwashing refers to a marketing spin that makes it appear that a company or product is environmentally friendly, when it may not be.

Rather than undertaking the hard work of actually reducing its carbon emissions, the complaint alleges, Delta is buying largely fabricated carbon offsets, while continuing to charge a premium price to travelers who believe they're paying for environmentally friendly travel.

The suit, which is seeking class-action status, is the first to challenge a U.S. airline's climate claims, according to Jonathan Haderlein, the plaintiff's attorney.

"The climate crisis is, in a lot of ways, a consumption crisis — it's the corporate supply chain and decisions that everyone makes, everyone participates in," Haderlein told CBS MoneyWatch. "As public consciousness is raised, consumers are trying to make informed decisions that are trying to mitigate their own impact. Companies are trying to capitalize on that by saying they're a green choice."

He added, "If you think you're flying the world's most green airline, and you're not, why wouldn't that be actionable?"

Flying is a major contributor to carbon pollution, accounting for more than 2% of all greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.

Delta, which did not immediately reply to a request for comment from CBS MoneyWatch, told the Associated Press the suit was "without legal merit."

"Since March 31, 2022, (Delta) has fully transitioned its focus away from carbon offsets toward decarbonization of our operations, focusing our efforts on investing in sustainable aviation fuel," Delta spokesperson Grant Myatt told the Associate Press.

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The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Glendale, California, resident Mayanna Berrin, who works for Nickelodeon and is about to turn 30, according to the AP. (Paramount Global, the owner of CBS News, also owns Nickelodeon.)

Berrin told the outlet that climate change gives her and her generation great anxiety, and that she was frustrated to learn that Delta's climate claims which made her comfortable paying more for a flight may be lies. 

"They can't just claim neutrality if that's not factually accurate," she told the AP. 

The suit alleges that "thousands" of travelers potentially paid more for Delta's flights because of the company's climate stance.

Offsets not good enough

Carbon offsets, which rely on paying for a climate-beneficial activity like reforestation to counteract the carbon pollution a company creates, have emerged as a major part of many corporate climate pledges. But a growing body of research has shown that emissions-reduction benefits of offsets are dubious at best. 

For instance, Delta's forestry and agriculture offsets for 2021 were certified by the carbon-offset vendor Verra, according to the complaint. However, an investigation by The Guardian earlier this year concluded that more than 90% of Verra's rainforest offsets had no climate benefit. 

Most of Delta's offsets paid for projects that would have happened anyway, without the airline's investment, the suit contends — meaning they shouldn't count as truly counterbalancing the airline's carbon emissions. A Bloomberg investigation last year found that dozens of large companies — including Delta — relied on "junk" credits to make carbon-neutrality claims.

Even when a carbon-offset project is valid, there's no guarantee that its carbon savings are permanent. For instance, there's no assurance that a tree planted in 2021 won't burn down in a forest fire two years later, releasing all its carbon. 

Because of these concerns, the suit claims, companies including JetBlue and Lyft have stopped using carbon credits and have moved toward reducing their emissions in other ways.  

"The reality is, a lot of companies knew these offsets were questionable and they didn't buy them, and they didn't advertise on it," said Haderlein. "This case isn't just about climate change, it's about fairness to consumers and it's also about fairness generally in the marketplace."

A handful of lawsuits over the past two years have taken aim at companies' environmental claims with the Dutch airline KLM, French energy giant TotalEnergies and food company Danone also being sued over "carbon-neutral" advertising.

U.S. regulators are also looking to rein in greenwashing, with the Federal Trade Commission in the midst of updating its "Green Guides" which dictate the types of environmental marketing in which companies can engage.

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