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Virgin Atlantic and BA face formal complaints over sustainability claims

<span>Photograph: Doug Peters/PA</span>
Photograph: Doug Peters/PA

Virgin Atlantic and British Airways are facing formal complaints over their sustainable flight claims after being accused of misleading potential customers about the environmental credentials of aviation.

This week, a Virgin Atlantic plane took off on the first transatlantic flight by a commercial airliner fully powered by “sustainable” jet fuel, largely comprising cooking oil. The flight, partly funded by the UK government, flew to great fanfare from airlines and ministers as a potentially guilt-free way to fly. However, scientists and environmental groups are more sceptical.

The climate charity Possible and the law firm Leigh Day have filed formal complaints against the two major airlines over their claims about reducing emissions from flights.

The senior campaigner at Possible, Alethea Warrington, said: “The reality is that technologies for cleaner flight either don’t work, or don’t even exist yet. We think that airlines’ misleading claims about their emissions are unfair on people who want to do the right thing when they travel. It’s time for airlines to start being honest about their sky-high emissions.”

Related: Can UK’s ‘jet zero’ hopes take off with a plane fuelled by used cooking oil?

The complaints, filed under the National Contact point mechanism run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), set out that both airlines are misleading consumers over their claims on reducing carbon emissions from flights as the layperson does not have the expertise to discern the limits of decarbonisation technology.

Airlines claim they can use biofuels made from crops or green hydrogen made from renewable energy, but recent research from the Royal Society has found the UK would have to devote half its farmland or more than double its total renewable electricity supply to make enough aviation fuel to meet its ambitions for net zero flying.

The filing highlights that BA claims to be “driving urgent action towards net-zero emissions” and that it says it has a “clear roadmap to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050”. However, analysis has found BA’s emissions from jet fuel have increased year-on-year between 2016 and 2019.

Virgin Atlantic features its “mission to net zero” on its promotional materials but fails to mention it is falling short of its emissions targets, which Possible has argued is crucial information for consumers.

The charity also points out scientific literature comparing the lifecycle emissions from biofuels with conventional jet fuel, “which is clear that these fuels may produce even more emissions and be worse for the climate than kerosene”. Both feedstocks produce fuels with similar tailpipe emissions to kerosene, and the emissions reductions are claimed to be created at a systemic level.

“For fuels derived from biomass, land is not available to produce crops for biofuels in sufficient quantities to power aviation without causing hugely damaging deforestation, which increase emissions and makes biofuels just as bad for the climate as kerosene, if not worse,” the charity said.

A British Airways spokesperson said: “In 2019, we committed to net-zero emissions by 2050 and, while there is no single solution to this challenge, as part of our BA Better World programme, we have a clear roadmap of initiatives to get there.

“In the short-term, this means improving our operational efficiency, investing in new, more fuel-efficient aircraft and progressively introducing sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) with partnerships in the UK and US, while for the medium to longer term, we’re continuing to invest in the development of SAF – a critical path to decarbonise, and looking at how we can help with the growth of zero-emissions hydrogen-powered aircraft and carbon-removal technology.

“We were the first airline to report our carbon footprint more than two decades ago and were the first airline to voluntarily participate in the UK emissions trading scheme.”

A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said: “At Virgin Atlantic, we are committed to achieving net zero 2050 and have set interim targets on our pathway to get there, including 10% sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.

“There are two levers for delivering in-sector carbon reductions in the short to medium term: the fleet we operate and fuel we burn. We already fly one of the youngest and most efficient fleets across the Atlantic. Beyond fleet renewals, SAF presents an immediate opportunity to deliver lifecycle carbon reductions of up to 70% and is something we have been pioneering for over 15 years.”