On the identical day last week that Air New Zealand announced the acquisition of its first fully electric aircraft, Christchurch Airport announced it had reached “a brand new standard for decarbonisation”. On the face of it, great news for reducing aviation emissions in Aotearoa.

The reality is a bit more complex – and dangerous. As the climate warms, so too is the temperature in boardrooms and courtrooms. The aviation industry is under increasing scrutiny for its sustainability claims, and climate litigation is on the rise.

At the identical time, “net zero” strategies generally are being challenged. The United Nations High-Level Expert Group was established ultimately 12 months’s COP27 summit, as Secretary General António Guterres explained, because “net zero suffers from a surplus of confusion and a deficit of credibility”.

The expert group has recommend a set of net-zero guidelines to place a “red line through greenwashing”. The guidelines underpin the UN’s approach to net zero, which requires corporate entities to advance ambitious climate mitigation actions based on rigorous and comprehensive science-based targets.

Among other things, the targets must include emissions reductions from the entity’s full value chain and activities. These include emissions from sources the entity owns and controls directly (often called scope 1); emissions the entity causes not directly (scope 2); and emissions not produced by the entity itself, but arising up and down its value chain (scope 3).

The expert group also notes that voluntary carbon credits (offsets) can’t be counted towards interim emissions reductions required on the pathway to Net Zero 2050. This is because carbon offsetting has been shown to be troublesome at best, and in lots of cases a scam.

Flights of fancy: unsupportable claims about sustainability are increasingly under scrutiny.
Getty Images

Airlines within the firing line

Key players in the worldwide aviation industry that make unsupportable claims have turn into targets for climate litigation.

A recent greenwashing criticism to the European Commission, for instance, was filed by consumer groups in 19 countries against 17 airlines. Virgin Atlantic and British Airways are facing formal complaints filed by a climate charity and law firm over sustainable flight claims.

Advertisements for Air France, Lufthansa and Etihad have been banned within the UK for greenwashing, following complaints to the UK Advertising Standards Board that phrases corresponding to “protecting the longer term”, “sustainable avitaion” and “low-emissions airline” are misleading consumers.

Delta faces a class motion lawsuit for claiming to be “the primary carbon neutral airline on a worldwide basis” in a case brought by a California resident claiming the airline has grossly misrepresented its climate impact.

And KLM is being sued for greenwashing by law firm Client Earth, which successfully argued the Dutch airline’s “Fly Responsibly” campaign consitutes misleading promoting under EU law while KLM is growing its variety of flights quite than reducing emissions.

Long-haul growth versus decarbonisation

Cases like these raise questions on Air New Zealand’s “Flight NZ0strategy and marketing, which focuses on sustainable aviation fuel and next-generation aircraft (including its recently bought electric Beta Alia), complemented by carbon offsetting and operational efficiency.

The concentrate on sustainable fuel may have to beat significant scientific, energy, scalability and price barriers. Solutions to those complex problems are prone to be many years away no less than.

While Air New Zealand promotes the Beta Alia – with its inherent altitude, payload and range limitations – it also goals to significantly increase its long haul network, and is setting its sights on the “ultra long haul experience”.

The contradiction between long-haul growth and decarbonisation strategies is expressed within the airline’s own 2017 sustainability report, wherein the sustainability advisory panel chair wrote:

And that’s the dilemma for anyone who cares passionately about addressing the multiple threats of climate change: either stop flying altogether (the logical but somewhat unworldly idealist’s position), or fly as little and as discriminatingly and responsibly as possible (the customarily uncomfortable pragmatist’s position).

As consumers and environmentalists focus more on the validity of climate claims and the viability of carbon reduction strategies, Air New Zealand may find it harder to defend its net zero pathway.

Airports on the radar

The environmental claims of other players in the broader aviation system – notably airports – are also prone to attract critical attention.

Airports Council International (ACI) is the global industry body for airports, with over 550 airports participating in its Airport Carbon Accreditation program, including many in New Zealand (most recently Invercargill Airport).

Christchurch Airport has been in this system for longer, and makes significant climate claims. In April 2022, it announced “one other world class sustainability achievement”, going “beyond carbon neutral, to turn into climate positive”.

But this doesn’t account for scope 3 emissions, mainly related to flights out and in of the airport, which make up 95.39% of total emissions. Airports can only look like climate-neutral by not accounting for the high and growing emissions of the planes which are their core business.

Stakeholder reputations on the road

Key stakeholders are also exposed to any potential accusations of greenwashing. Christchurch City Council own 75% of the airport through a holding company, and the federal government owns 25%. Both have declared climate emergencies and made emissions reduction commitments.

Industry groups are involved, too. Tourism Industry Aotearoa, which represents businesses across the tourism industry, last month announced Christchurch Airport the winner of its Tourism Environment Award.

It cited the airport’s “climate positive” status and hailed it as being “on the forefront of airport environmental initiatives globally”. Such claims may be technically true if one accepts the limited parameters used to measure them.

But the Tourism Industry Aotearoa might want to ensure its environmental awards keep pace with developments on this rapidly changing field – including the increasing risk of litigation over unsustainable claims about sustainability.

This article was originally published at theconversation.com