Etihad accused of misleading customers with greenwashing in ‘net zero’ ads
Etihad has been accused of misleading customers through advertising that spruiked its emissions reductions plans, with Australia’s consumer watchdog now considering action against the airline amid its crackdown on greenwashing.
Aviation emissions advocacy group Flight Free Australia alleged in the complaint that two Etihad advertisements that appeared on digital advertising banners during an A-League football match between Melbourne City and Adelaide United at Melbourne’s AAMI Park on 15 February last year were false or misleading.
Etihad advertised the words “net zero emissions by 2050” next to its logo, and in another ad, claimed “Flying shouldn’t cost the Earth”.
Flight Free Australia claims the ads convey the false or misleading impression that flying with Etihad does not have a significant environmental impact, that Etihad intends to achieve net zero by 2050 and that it has plans and reasonable grounds for expecting it will reach the target.
While the complaint lodged with the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission on Wednesday relates to the two ads, Flight Free Australia said Etihad had made similar statements many times on different platforms.
The group argued Etihad had no credible path to net zero emissions by 2050. It said it was not “technologically, practically, or economically feasible” to reach net zero via current aviation emissions reduction initiatives, and that marketing services as such undermined market integrity and compromised efforts to limit global warming.
In its complaint, Flight Free Australia contended that Etihad’s sustainability claims of achieving net zero emissions by 2050 are unmodelled and rely heavily on speculative technology, carbon credit and offset programs.
“Etihad in fact intends to increase its absolute CO2 emissions,” the group argued, noting Etihad’s own sustainability report forecasts an increase in carbon dioxide emissions to 2026. It also said Etihad had significantly understated its emissions.
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Alex Mungall, Flight Free Australia’s spokesperson, said the group saw “potential greenwashing” in Etihad’s ads and called on the carrier to withdraw its sustainability claims.
“Our complaint alleges Etihad has no credible path to net zero in place and is instead talking up emissions reduction initiatives that are not … feasible,” Mungall said.
Mungall noted the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report from this week, which was characterised as a “final warning” that limiting global heating to 1.5C can only be achieved through swift and drastic action.“Greenwashing undermines trust in climate action,” Mungall said.
The Environmental Defenders Office lodged the complaint on behalf of Flight Free Australia. The office’s senior solicitor, Zoe Bush, said: “When a company makes false claims about its climate credentials it gains a competitive advantage by misleading people and exploiting their desire to do the right thing.
“We’ve pored over Etihad’s public documents and found insufficient evidence that it intends, or reasonably expects, to reach net zero by 2050,” Bush said.
Bush noted the ACCC announced a crackdown on greenwashing earlier this month. “We are asking it to investigate whether Etihad has engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct in the commissioning of these ads.”
The watchdog announced it would step up its probe of companies’ environmental claims after an initial sweep of 247 businesses or brands across eight sectors found 57% had made misleading statements ranging from overstating climate action to developing their own certification schemes.
At the time, ACCC’s deputy chair, Catriona Lowe, said: “Consumers are now, more than ever, making purchasing decisions on environmental grounds.
“Unfortunately, it appears that rather than making legitimate changes to their practices and procedures, some businesses are relying on false or misleading claims.”
On Wednesday, an ACCC spokesperson told Guardian Australia they would “consider the complaint from the Environmental Defenders office”, but would not say if Etihad had been already been identified as part of the initial sweep.
“Greenwashing is a priority for the ACCC and we are currently examining a number of concerns about greenwashing involving a range of industries,” the spokesperson said.
If the watchdog takes legal action against Etihad and it is found in breach on all of the allegations levelled by Flight Free Australia, the airline could be ordered to pay more than $50m or 30% of its turnover during the period the breach occurred – whichever is higher. However, if the ACCC instead issues an infringement, it could face fines of $16,500 per breach.
Aviation accounts for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, but its warming impact is far larger owing to the other gases and particulates it emits at high altitudes. These impacts include nitrogen oxides and contrail clouds, and while they are rarely touched upon in aviation climate goals, there are concerns they could be tripling the climate impacts of aviation compared with CO2.
While sustainable aviation fuels have been in development for years and are touted by airlines in their sustainability commitments, these fuels account for a minuscule share of aviation fuel consumption and widescale production to sufficiently replace global aviation’s reliance on conventional fuel is not expected for several decades.
In a statement, Etihad said it “runs a comprehensive research, development, and innovation programme to address aviation decarbonisation, and is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, in line with IATA’s declared industry-wide net zero ambition for 2050”.
“Our ambition is to reduce the impact of aviation on the environment, and we continue to explore and test all possible ways to decarbonise – from research into sustainable aviation fuels and contrail avoidance to offsets and reforestation through the Etihad Mangroves,” the airline said.