1st Dec 2023
In response to rising awareness of climate change, industries worldwide are reevaluating their operations and seeking solutions to lessen their environmental impact. The airline industry, a significant emitter of greenhouse gases, is actively participating in this global effort.
Aviation contributes approximately 2% to 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions. While this proportion may seem relatively small compared to other sectors, the impact is amplified by the fact that these emissions are released directly into the upper atmosphere, exerting a powerful effect on climate dynamics 1.
Strategies employed by the airline industry to combat climate change
Global airlines have set their sights on achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, with key companies pursuing this ambitious objective through various strategies, each addressing different aspects of their operations.
Technological advancements: The industry is heavily investing in research and development to create more fuel-efficient aircraft and engines. These technological advancements play a critical role in reducing emissions per flight. Furthermore, investigations into alternative propulsion systems, like electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft, are ongoing. These innovations hold the promise of a dramatic decrease in the sector’s carbon footprint 2.
Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF): Airlines are investing in the production of SAF, made from diverse sources such as waste oils and agricultural residues. While its current usage is limited due to production and cost challenges, SAF has the potential to cut the carbon emissions of aviation fuel by up to 80% 3.
Operational efficiency: Besides the advancement in technology, airlines are improving their operational efficiency. This includes optimizing flight paths, reducing aircraft weight, and refining ground operations to limit unnecessary fuel burn, all of which contribute to a reduction in emissions 4.
Carbon offsetting: Many airlines have implemented carbon offset programs, providing passengers with the opportunity to counterbalance the emissions generated by their flights. These programs invest in projects aimed at reducing or removing greenhouse gas emissions in different sectors 5.
Government and regulatory initiatives: Global initiatives like the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) are in place to cap net aviation CO2 emissions at 2020 levels. These regulatory measures provide a roadmap for the airline industry’s transition to lower emissions 6.
Market-based measures: Proposals for market-based measures, such as carbon pricing, are on the table. A carbon tax or emissions trading system could incentivize emission reductions by making lower-carbon choices more economically attractive 7.
US airlines implementing climate change strategies
Various airlines in the United States have taken noteworthy steps toward mitigating climate change and reducing emissions.
United Airlines has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, partly through a multi-million-dollar investment in a carbon capture technology known as direct air capture. This technology can sequester billions of metric tons of CO2 per year, storing it permanently underground. This substantial investment will support the construction of the first carbon capture plant in Texas 8.
Delta Air Lines aims for carbon neutrality by enhancing fleet and operational efficiencies and investing in carbon offset initiatives such as forest protection and expansion projects. The company has replaced over 200 older aircraft with new, 25 percent more fuel-efficient models and aims to replace 10 percent of its fossil fuel-based jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030. Delta is also placing bets on future green technologies, including carbon capture and electric solutions 8.
Southwest Airlines is assisting the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in developing affordable, low-carbon aviation fuels derived from waste. The company sees sustainable aviation fuel as a critical component in achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 8.
The future of the airline industry and climate change
While the target of carbon neutrality by 2050 marks a significant stride, the future of global airlines in the context of climate change will likely involve consistent innovation and adaptation. This could include further advancements in fuel efficiency, the broader adoption of sustainable fuels, and the potential for electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft. Furthermore, the development of new fuel technologies is still in its early days. While electric batteries might play a role in short, regional routes and urban travel, for longer flights—where 80% of emissions occur—combustible fuel remains largely the only viable option for now 9.
Although airlines are making progress in reducing their environmental impact, the journey toward sustainability is complex and fraught with challenges. It will necessitate innovative solutions, industry-wide cooperation, and supportive regulatory frameworks. It will also require an understanding and acceptance of the role that each individual has to play in reducing emissions, with more than one-third of Americans now saying they are likely to pay a little extra in airfare for carbon offsets 9.
As global airlines enter a critical period in their efforts to combat climate change, the sector must accelerate its pace of innovation and investment. With the future of the planet at stake, the flight toward sustainability must become the industry’s primary mission.