How airlines plan to end one billion tons of carbon emissions

American Airlines jet parked at LaGuardia International Airport in New York. 

Adam Jeffery | CNBC

In 1928, one person crossed the Atlantic; in 2018 there were 4.3 billion passenger journeys recorded. Although some people managed to avoid it even before Covid – according to a Gallup poll, about half of Americans don’t fly at all — the rest of the U.S. population flies enough to bring the mean up to about two flights per year.

It takes a lot of energy to get people up into the air and, since the production of energy comes at an environmental cost, air travel is a significant carbon emitter, with a unique challenge compared to other modes of transport when it comes to climate change. Unlike innovations in electric cars, boats, and trains — where the added mass required to go electric isn’t an insurmountable engineering problem, and the extension cords aren’t 30,000 feet long — combustible fuel remains largely the only way to fly, at least for longer flights. Eighty percent of emissions are from flights that are roughly 1,000 miles or longer, and for which there is no current viable alternative to fuel.

Each individual has a role to play in bringing down emissions. The average American is responsible for about 15 metric tons of CO2 per year, and more than one-third of Americans say they now are likely to pay a little extra in their airfare for carbon offsets. The rich and famous have an even bigger carbon footprint. Taylor Swift’s much-maligned private jet produces around 8000 metric tons of CO2 annually. But Taylor has nothing on the airline industry, whose annual CO2 emission is pushing one billion metric tons. If the combined air industry were a country, besides having a killer peanut region, it would also have a larger CO2 emission than Germany. 

The industry, though, stresses its small carbon footprint relative to other industries.

U.S. carriers, specifically, transport over 2 million passengers and 68,000 tons of cargo per day while contributing “just” 2 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the industry trade group Airlines for America. The aviation industry has become more efficient in recent decades, with U.S. airlines improving their fuel efficiency (on a revenue ton mile basis) by more than 135% between 1978 and 2021. But a focus on how low that 2% figure seems is part of a growing problem, according to climate analysts who study the aviation sector.

Covid slowed air travel, but it’s still expected to triple

Video conferencing may replace some portion of business travel, but as the aviation sector rebounds, climate analysts say a tripling in global air travel in the decades ahead — although forecast before Covid — is still a safe bet. Passenger travel will ramp back up more slowly, but analysts note that aviation is also used for cargo, which is not effected by business class. That’s a reason for significant concern about aviation’s carbon reduction plans. The industry needs to be focused on keeping its share of emissions down, rather than seeing its current share as a reason to move more deliberately, according to climate analysts.

Compared with autos, where there is already a decade of progress on electric vehicles, and in the power generation sector, where there have already been significant investments in renewable energy sources that are cost-competitive versus traditional sources, aviation is still in the experimentation days of new fuel technology. Electric batteries, at best, have a role to play on shorter, regional routes and urban travel, and airlines are making these investments.

Some critics say the aviation industry has been too slow to seek climate solutions, but concede that aviation is a tough sector when it comes to net-zero goals because of its unique safety and regulatory requirements. Aviation wasn’t helped by the pandemic, and even its critics say that expecting the past few years to have seen a tidal wave of investment into startup technologies would have been unrealistic given the more pressing financial challenges. Airlines have completed test flights with sustainable aviation fuels, and the deals with sustainable aviation fuel producers have started to accumulate.

Travelers make their way through security check at San Francisco International airpot during the start of the long July 4th holiday weekend in San Francisco, California, June, 30, 2022.

Carlos Barria | Reuters

American Airlines finalized a deal over the summer with biofuel company Gevo to purchase 500 million gallons of sustainable airline fuel (SAF) over five years, part of American’s net zero carbon directive. It describes its climate goals as “aggressive,” including achieving net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. American is the first airline globally to receive validation…

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