Faced with increasing customer concern, it’s become popular among travel companies to label themselves “carbon neutral“.
But in recent weeks, both the UK Government and EU Parliament have said they’ll ban communication that misleads consumers about the environmental credentials of products.
“Carbon neutral” claims are firmly in their cross hairs. This week, a complaint was filed in California regarding Delta Air Lines’ pledge of $1bn (£800m) over a decade to become “the world’s first carbon-neutral airline”. The airline could face a class action lawsuit over alleged violations of state consumer protection laws.
All holidays – especially those with a flight involved – produce emissions that accelerate climate change. But until now, any travel company could market itself as carbon neutral – without evidence or challenge – typically by buying carbon offsets.
These offsets don’t reduce your holiday carbon. They simply pay towards a scheme that helps plant saplings or absorb some carbon eleswhere. But the carbon we emit is instant and can linger for hundreds of years. The science is clear – reductions – not “offsets” – are critical.
Any “climate neutral” tour operators that make little or no effort to reduce their emissions – or plan to grow them under a carbon neutral smokescreen – join greenwashers such as “carbon neutral” coal mines and private jet firms.
Some travel companies will reduce emissions before buying offsets to “compensate” for the rest: how much or how they calculate this isn’t always clear. They might choose to exclude flight emissions from carbon neutral calculations, passing the buck to airlines, or account for flight emissions differently.
But under the new proposals, they’ll need to measure their total carbon emissions, state how much they’ve reduced – and offset – and detail their methodology.
I expect that few carbon neutral travel claims will survive this. Those that do will show it’s impossible to reduce most of your holiday’s emissions (the flight).
These claims are damaging because they encourage the idea that tourism’s climate problems are solved. In doing so, they deny travellers the right to understand their impacts and make informed choices, excuse companies from the hard graft of genuinely cutting emissions, and distract governments from properly incentivising and regulating lower carbon tourism.
Here’s the truth. Your holiday will contribute to the climate crisis. Air miles cannot be “cancelled” through offsets, however nice that sounds. The only solution is to cut carbon.
So, the next time a company says you can jet off with them on a “climate neutral” (or worse, “positive”) holiday, ask how it is reducing emissions. If all they talk about is offsets, it’s probably greenwash.
I get it. In travel, if you count the flights (and we must) it’s incredibly hard – impossible, really – to cut emissions significantly unless you chop your own sales by half. But this honest realisation doesn’t justify paving over our footprints.
We need a frank conversation about holidays and the planet, not one hidden behind puffed-up marketing slogans designed to propagate business as usual.
We don’t have to swap that dream Thailand adventure for a local Vegan eco-campsite. But, if you care about the planet, these are two of the best things you can do.
Fly less. There are wonders to explore in the UK and in Europe that don’t require a plane ticket. When you do fly, make it count: stay longer, and choose a trip that cuts emissions in-destination and provides strong local social and environmental benefits.
Crucially, call on the government, via your local MP, to curb aviation demand with a Green Flying Duty (fairer taxes for frequent flyers, domestic travel and first/business class) and to tax aviation fuel (we pay it for our cars, airlines can cough up too) – and ringfencing these funds for investment into affordable, low-carbon travel.