Carbon neutral claims to be illegal

Many well-known travel companies present themselves to customers as “carbon-neutral” in response to growing customer concern over flying and global heating.

However, Responsible Travel has never done that. We want people to recognize the seriousness of the problem and fly less, rather than use false advertising with the intention of obscuring this. The problem with telling customers the carbon impacts of their holiday have been 'neutralised' is that it suggests there is no limit to how much they, or anyone else can fly.

We all need to recognize the need for serious change, not sow the seed that we can carry on as normal. Tour operators who claim to be carbon-neutral risk joining greenwashers like coal mines and private jet companies making the same claims.

If you ask a tour operator claiming to be carbon-neutral whether they plan to reduce flying significantly (by 50% in seven years to meet the Paris goals), they will say no. Most will be planning to grow their businesses, flying, and carbon emissions.

EU greenwashing

The EU and UK Government have now made it clear that they will tackle misleading climate-neutral advertising. Under the plans, the Advertising Standards Authority will take action against firms that tell consumers they can buy their products without making global heating or nature loss worse by virtue of purchasing offsets – unless they can demonstrate they really are effective.

The EU Directive requires companies to distinguish between their own emission reduction efforts and the use of carbon-offsetting schemes, such as planting trees.

Companies are requested to specify whether offsets relate to emission reductions or removals and provide additional information, including the methodology used to substantiate the claim and the share of total emissions addressed through offsetting. A tour operator making carbon neutral claims without this data will be targeted by regulators.

Responsible Travel dropped carbon offsets in 2009, and have been critics of carbon neutral claims for years. We've focussed on the harder job of reducing emissions and designing plans and lobbying Governments for better ways to regulate aviation. Many people in the responsible travel community didn’t like it. They told us offsets are better than doing nothing, or a last resort after trying everything else to reduce carbon.

Chris Stark, CEO of UK Government’s climate advisor, the Climate Change Committee, recently said that “the rise of cheap carbon credits is proving an unhelpful distraction from harder boardroom decisions that genuinely cut emissions in the supply chain.”

Carbon-neutral claims have propagated the idea that tourism’s climate problems have been solved and taken the focus away from how to properly regulate, tax and incentivize our sector - especially aviation.

As to the claim that its a last resort after efforts to reduce carbon then under the new regulations we'll see whether tour operators have indeed made any meaningful reductions in their absolute scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions before buying cheap offsets - or whether as many suspect they haven't and chose the easier fix of cheap offsets and misleading advertising.

Carbon neutral claims have succeeded in not only distracting tourists from the need for change but also governments and regulators. No wonder the aviation sector has been so keen on them.

Recently, it’s been interesting to see two major airlines drop carbon offsets and decide to spend this money on reducing their carbon emissions instead. We’ve yet to see any results of that, but it feels like the right direction of travel.

It’s time for more honesty, with ourselves and with our customers. I don’t think customers trust travel companies offering carbon-neutral holidays. Now regulators will be after them too.

Written by Justin Francis