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May 31, 2023

Is Delta Airlines Carbon Neutral?

Mark Trexler

Here's what the internet is blowing up about this week: Delta Airlines faces a lawsuit over its claim of carbon neutrality. It's amazing how many sites have covered this lawsuit over the past day, given that no one really knows any more than anyone else.

The basic facts are that Delta has committed to being carbon neutral, has purchased a lot of carbon offsets, and plans to purchase many more. In 2021, Delta apparently paid an average of $5/ton for purchased offsets.

The plaintiff is arguing that she would not have purchased a ticket on Delta, and would not have (apparently) chosen to offset her flight if she had known that Delta's offsets were bogus (which is presumably what's being argued).

The case is going to generate a TON of free publicity for the young lawyers filing it, but its future is obviously far from certain. Getting a judge to wade into the complexities of voluntary carbon markets and carbon offset additionality is by no means guaranteed, and there will be a massive amount of support for Delta's position from offset interests, assuming the case gets to course.

It's a bit of deja vu for me. In 1996, Oregon held a first-of-its-kind power plant permitting proceeding in which one "exemption from need" permit would be issued to a project developer, based on "net CO2 emissions" (inclusive of offsets). There were three project developers involved in the case, and my team represented the winning developer and its offset portfolio. Of the other two, one proposed a portfolio, and the other tried to kill the whole idea of offsets based on the argument that they had filed first, and should therefore automatically get the permit. As I recall, in addition to providing some of the first carbon offset expert witness testimony, we fielded something like 800 data requests during the case.

Of course, 1996 was a LONG time ago in the world of climate change policy and the concept of carbon neutrality. There has been a lot of water under the offsets bridge since then. But if this case goes to court, it will be another "first of its kind offsets case."

It's interesting to see this lawsuit being characterized as "anti climate change mitigation" in its impact because it tries to kill a key market mechanisms for carbon finance. But as Winston Churchill noted: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

My goal in my critiques of carbon offsets is certainly not to "throw the climate under the bus." Indeed, my only motivation when it comes to carbon offsets is to raise the question of whether carbon offsets will meaningfully mitigate climate change. For better or worse, the last 30 years suggests that offsets probably won't have that outcome, since we refuse to actually try and solve the well-known challenges.



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Mark Trexler


Mark has more than 30 years of regulatory and energy policy experience. He has advised clients around the world on climate change risk and risk management. He is widely published on business risk management topics surrounding climate change, including in the design and deployment of carbon markets. Mark has served as a lead author for the IPCC and holds advanced degrees from the University of California at Berkeley.

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