Airline giant KLM faces legal action for green washing

The greenwashing case against KLM is considered to be the first corporate lawsuit against airlines and Net Zero – and one of the first lawsuits against carbon offsets.

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Environmental groups on Tuesday launched legal action against KLM, saying the Dutch aviation giant was misleading the public about the sustainability of flying.

This is the first time that the airline industry has been challenged with so-called “greenwashing”.

Supported by environmental advocates from the Netherlands-based promoters Fossielvrij NL, Reclame Fossielvrij and ClientEarth, they argue that KLM’s advertising campaigns and “compensation” schemes violate European consumer law .

The case was notified to KLM on the same day as the firm’s annual general meeting.

The group was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

Just as the fossil fuel industry is using greenwashing to protect their operating licenses, the aviation sector is using misleading advertising to increase its licenses.

Johnny White

ClientArtha’s lawyer

“KLM’s marketing misleads customers into believing that its flights will not exacerbate the climate emergency. But it’s a myth,” said Hisk Arts, a promoter for FossilVridge NL.

“We are going to court to claim the truth about KLM’s fossil-fuel dependent products. One of the fastest ways to warm the planet is unchecked flying,” says Arts. “Customers need to be informed and protected from claims that suggest it is not.”

Climate lawsuits have won significant numbers in recent months, with a dramatic increase in targets for various private sectors and financial actors.

The greenwashing case against KLM is considered to be the first corporate lawsuit against airlines and Net Zero – and one of the first lawsuits against carbon offsets.

As a result, it effectively puts the global aviation sector on notice.

Why is KLM facing legal action?

At the heart of the case is KLM’s so-called “Fly Responsibly” campaign. It has been described as KLM’s “commitment to take the lead in creating a more sustainable future for aviation” and presents the airline as a track to bring emissions down to net zero by the middle of the century.

Environmental groups launching legal action say the lawsuits would argue these claims are “extremely misleading” because KLM’s plan for continued flying growth conflicts with urgent action needed to secure a vibrant future.

Aviation is one of the most energy-intensive costs, and both passenger demand and cargo volume will continue to grow in the coming decades. This growth could see the aviation sector in growing conflict with global decarbonization goals.

Since its merger in May 2004, Air France-KLM has become the largest airline group in Europe.

Coin Van Well | AFP | Getty Images

The world’s leading climate scientists have repeatedly warned that rapid and large-scale emissions reduction is needed in all sectors to avoid the worst-case scenario of a climate crisis.

Some airlines have spoken of the potential for sustainable aviation fuel to help reduce the industry’s environmental footprint, with Airbus CEOs calling hydrogen planes the “ultimate solution” for the medium and long term.

A study published in March by the Campaign Group Transport and Environment, however, shows that the aviation sector cannot align with net zero and reduce the impact of climate without reducing the number of flights.

“While climate experts warn that we must reduce air traffic to keep a fair and livable world within reach, KLM and the airline industry are focusing on price increases and are lobbying vigorously against climate control,” said Johnny White, client Earth’s lawyer, in a press release. Has been said.

“This is not the case now or ever for climate action. Airlines will not be allowed to compete for business in the claim that they are tackling the climate crisis, when in reality they are fueling it.”

Since its merger in May 2004, Air France-KLM has become one of the largest airlines in Europe. Together, the two airlines carry about 77 million passengers each year.

Air-France KLM on Tuesday launched a 2.26 billion euro ($ 2.4 billion) share sale to strengthen the firm’s balance sheet and pay off some French state aid. CEO Ben Smith said the move is part of the firm’s desire to strengthen its financial autonomy and restore strategic and operational flexibility.

“As the recovery continues and our economic performance recovers … we want to be able to seize any opportunity in a transformed aviation sector and accelerate our environmental commitments,” Smith said in a statement.

Shares of Air France-KLM traded 13% lower on Tuesday afternoon. The firm’s stock price is down about 2% from year to date.

Carbon offset

Together with Air France-KLM and Air France, KLM pledged to align its carbon emissions reduction targets with the Paris Agreement in October last year.

Governments of the world agreed in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, and continued efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Environmental groups targeting KLM further note that the firm’s “Fly Responsibly” campaign includes an offer for customers to purchase a carbon offset product, called “CO2ZERO”. It is a voluntary service that helps KLM customers pay for projects or reduce their impact by purchasing KLM biofuels.

They argue that these products do nothing to limit the damage they cause to the climate and that promoting these products to consumers weakens the urgent climate action.

To be sure, only 1% of the world’s population has been found to cause 50% of commercial aircraft emissions.

“Flight emissions cannot be ‘compensated’ if customers simply pay extra for planting or paying for false solutions, as the industry calls ‘sustainable aviation fuel.’ With these messages, KLM continues to throw sand in our eyes,” Arts says.

“Just as the fossil fuels industry is using greenwashing to protect their operating licenses, the aviation sector is using misleading advertising to increase its licenses,” said White of ClientEarth. “We need legislation to finally put an end to these delayed strategies for the better.”

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