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Airlines commit to reducing carbon emissions, but challenges stand in the way

The pandemic era has acted as a catalyst for many airlines to do more to mitigate climate change.

Customers are putting more pressure on airlines to take more action to cut emissions. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The aviation industry can be a lightning rod for criticism from those who blast its contributions to greenhouse gases and climate change.

But in recent months, domestic airlines big and small — passenger and cargo — have announced measures that could muzzle some of the rumblings: a goal to reduce their respective companies’ carbon emissions to net-zero within 30 years.

It’s an ambitious goal, although many airlines have had climate targets for years. Still, the coronavirus pandemic era has acted as a catalyst for many airlines to do more to mitigate the altering of the climate.

“We know the climate change challenge our country and the world face has only continued to intensify,” Nicholas E. Calio, president and chief executive of Airlines for America — a U.S. airline industry advocacy group — said in a statement. “Today, we embrace the need to take even bolder, more significant steps to address this challenge.”

Airlines account for 3.5 percent of all emissions contributions to climate change, according to a study in the journal Atmospheric Environment, and the transportation sector is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. But although some airlines have expressed goals of bringing that number to zero, reaching the target will be more challenging.

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The rub, said Lauren Riley, managing director of environmental affairs and sustainability for United Airlines, is that airlines don’t have a readily available solution. Road vehicles can more easily be converted to run on electricity, but the path to zero is more of a choose-your-adventure story for airlines.

“It’s a little bit of a nascent space when you look at the technologies that we’re going to need to really support true decarbonized flying,” Riley said.

As other sectors are able to lower their emissions more quickly, aviation’s chunk of the world’s carbon dioxide pie will grow.

For years, airlines have focused on carbon-offset programs, such as contributing to projects that plant or preserve carbon-dioxide-absorbing trees. Some airlines, including Delta and JetBlue, are still relying, at least in part, on voluntary use of carbon offsets in the near term.

Carbon offsets do yield environmental benefits, but they are not enough to get to net-zero. And they do not shift behaviors or decisions within an airline industry, since an offsets arrangement is more of a financial transaction conducted outside an airline’s supply chain or operations. Getting to zero, Riley said, will take investing in possible solutions.

“The conversation needs to be about how we can fly the skies sustainably,” she said. “We should all be responsible agents in providing and connecting our customers to their destination in a manner that doesn’t necessarily cause climate change.”

Airline customers, Riley said, have increasingly put pressure on carriers to do more to diminish airlines’ contributions to the warming of the planet.

Amelia DeLuca, managing director for sustainability at Delta, echoed that sentiment, saying stakeholders range from investors to businesses looking to reduce their own footprints. The group also includes customers, she said, many of whom are vocal about what they view as the airlines’ duty to reduce emissions.

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“That next generation of customers are saying, ‘Look, I want to travel on a sustainable airline,’ ” DeLuca said.

Options for airlines to lower their emissions — some more readily available than others — include retiring gas-guzzling older aircraft, updating air traffic routes to be more fuel efficient and investing in newer technologies such as electricity and hydrogen.

One promising method is boosting access to and the use of more-sustainable fuels.

Fuels powered by plant and municipal waste could help lower carbon dioxide emissions up to 80 percent compared with conventional fossil-based jet fuel, according to Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders, but ramping up to widespread usage will take years for a slow-moving and expensive process that has few producers.

In 2019, airlines used 13 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuels — about 0.01 percent of the 18 billion gallons of jet fuel burned during that time.

“The airlines have very solid plans to meet those goals,” said Alan Stolzer, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. “I’ve heard some companies say 2030, which may be ambitious, but I would say 2050 is definitely feasible.”

Airlines for America members — including Alaska, American, Atlas, Delta, FedEx, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, United and UPS — have called on the federal government to support laws and policies that would help advance the cause. They argue that such a transition would create jobs while improving the nation’s energy independence. And because sustainable fuels can be made from waste, making them would lessen the burden on landfills.

Although the most unifying goal among airlines is getting to net-zero emissions, various airlines also have sought to work toward other sustainability targets.

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United announced in December a multimillion-dollar investment in a project to remove carbon dioxide from the air through technology called “direct air capture.” The direct air capture plant, according to United, would sequester 1 million tons of carbon dioxide annually — the rough equivalent of 40 million trees.

Delta announced it would invest in carbon capture and other green technologies such as electricity. Alaska announced a five-year goal to reduce waste through more-sustainable packaging, in-flight recycling and offsetting its operational water use through investments in habitat projects.

Such changes are unlikely to be noticeable in the short term, but DeLuca said they are steps toward reaching a larger goal of “zero impact aviation.”