4 wildly different ways airlines are going net zero

Brandon Pytel
Mar 19 · 3 min read

With the COVID-19 relief bill passed, Democrats are turning to their next big priority: clean infrastructure. And that means greening the transportation sector, which makes up the largest portion of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Fortunately, Biden’s $2 trillion plan goes all in on clean transportation, aiming to further electrify the rail system, expand charging availability, and invest in electric cars. But even $2 trillion won’t clean up one industry: air travel.

The Biden administration has yet to figure out what to do about airline emissions, which are set to triple by 2050. And unlike car companies, which can transition to all-electric, zero-emissions models, airlines have no such option.

With no federal plan, and under increasing pressure from consumers, many airlines have been forced to prematurely roll out net-zero targets (emphasis on the “net” — since even the most “sustainable” jet fuel still emits carbon, we can’t get a truly zero-emission airline). What’s left is a lot of guesswork, gambling, and some wildly different carbon plans.

In February 2020, Delta, for example, committed $1 billion to hit net zero emissions by 2030, two decades ahead of Paris Agreement targets.

Here’s the catch, though: Much of its strategy is replacing jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel (SAV). And since SAV still emits carbon, Delta is also investing heavily in carbon offsets — an effort that includes restoring forests, wetlands, and grasslands, but is largely greenwashing.

American Airlines is also relying mostly on SAV and carbon offsets to hit its goal of net zero by 2050, set in October 2020.

The problem with carbon offsets — the most popular of which is planting trees — is that rewards are slow to kick in. Planting a seedling, for example, isn’t going to pay off for years. Plus, trees aren’t silver bullets. Sure, they store carbon, but leaves and needles still die and release some of that carbon.

United Airlines apparently agrees with these limits because it’s taking a completely different route. Like American, United committed to net zero by 2050 (in December 2020). But how it’s doing it is, well, BONKERS.

In addition to investing in SAV, United is committing millions to “atmospheric carbon capture technology known as Direct Air Capture — rather than indirect measures like carbon-offsetting” (call out!).

In other words, United is planning to remove all its carbon permanently using carbon-capture technology, which is largely unproven and not yet economically viable. United has yet to provide any details on what they’re investing or how much CO2 they plan to capture, but I guess you have to admire the gumption?

And for those keeping score, Southwest, the world’s third-largest airline by capacity, has no emissions plan. Instead, its website touts recycling and conservation projects, and, to give it some credit, everyone’s favorite SAV.

A throughline with most of these pledges is the commitment to the more-efficient sustainable aviation fuel. But that’s like switching from coal to natural gas, which lowers emissions proportionately but still spews tons of CO2.

Of course, these investments and more still need to be made. And it’s not like airlines are strapped for cash — the industry received a $25 billion pandemic-related bailout from the U.S. government, a sum that far surpassed other travel industries, like hotels and restaurants. Plus, airline stocks are up 200% over their pandemic low.

No matter how you look at it, airlines’ futures are not carbon free. That presents a problem not just for publicity, but for keeping climate change in check. With airline emissions, we have an unsolvable problem, and everyone — even the airline industry — admits it.

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Brandon Pytel

Written by

Environmental writer living in Washington, DC. Opinions are his own.

Planet Days

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

Brandon Pytel

Written by

Environmental writer living in Washington, DC. Opinions are his own.

Planet Days

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

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