Ed Bastian, Delta Air Lines’ CEO announced last Friday an ambitious plan to become the first U.S. airline to go carbon neutral beginning March 1. The company says it will spend at least $1 billion over the next decade to buy emission offsets and invest in more efficient planes, new fuel sources and carbon-capture technologies.
- U.S.-based airlines are getting more fuel-efficient, but Americans are traveling more and erasing potential gains. Besides carbon offsets, what other steps can the industry immediately take to reduce its escalating carbon footprint?
- Airline fuel efficiency varies widely — 20% to 85% difference in carbon intensity —depending on several factors, including layovers and aircraft flown. Could more stringent regulations on aircraft age, maintenance, and other factors improve efficiency and reduce carbon intensity?
- Early research in new fuel technologies such as hydrogen, hybrid-electric propulsion, and recycled waste may provide zero carbon alternatives for planes of the future. How can business leaders help expedite needed research given the impending climate crisis?
- Air travel accounts for only about 2.5 percent of global carbon emissions, and U.N. forecasts suggest that the industry’s greenhouse-gas output will triple by 2050. But according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, emissions from global air travel may be increasing more than 1.5 times as fast as the U.N. estimate.
- “Airlines, for all intents and purposes, are becoming more fuel efficient. But we’re seeing demand outstrip any of that,” said Brandon Graver, who led the new study. “The climate challenge for aviation is worse than anyone expected.”
- A Virgin service claiming to be the first to be partly powered by recycled waste crossed the Atlantic last October. According to its US fuel supply firm, LanzaTech, if that single flight could be scaled up – and more importantly, function with a fuel blend of 50% recycled waste rather than just 5% – it could curb greenhouse gas emissions by 65% compared with conventional jet fuel.
Delta is able to immediately become carbon-neutral by purchasing carbon offsets which are financial transactions that ostensibly help cancel out carbon emissions by preventing emissions elsewhere in the world, like planting trees or supporting renewable energy.
Delta says it’s going to minimize its reliance on carbon offsets, though it also concedes technologies enabling it to directly reduce its emissions aren’t readily available or in some cases even invented yet. It plans to research those technologies and others with its new allocation of $1 billion.
This announcement will likely generate public good will for Delta and put pressure on other airlines, many of which probably can’t afford similar programs. However, the sustainability of buying offsets for a decade is problematic.
Carbon offsets are, at best, very opaque and definitely hard for the average person to understand,” said Sola Zheng, an expert on aviation at the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation.
The value of offsets is questionable as its unclear whether offsets purchased actually reduce emissions and don’t just throw money at projects, such as planting trees or building a wind farm, that would have happened regardless.
Almost all airlines rely on carbon offsets to cut their emissions. That’s because no commercially available technology exists to affordably make large quantities of low-carbon or zero-carbon jet fuel, whether battery-powered or another kind of liquid like biofuels.
The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is working on developing standards to ensure quality offsets in an industry-wide program, but no uniform quality-control measures exist for carbon offsets airlines and others purchase, besides disparate third-party programs.