Can the Airline Industry Take Off with a Lower Carbon “Wingprint?”

Prior to the global pandemic, global air travel was projected to grow tremendously. As air travel slowly begins to pick up where it left off, we review how the airline industry is prepared  to reduce its carbon emissions.

In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined that pollution from aviation is a threat to public health. It issued a subsequent legal requirement to establish a carbon emissions standard for aircraft. In previous years, the EPA had set aviation emissions standards that were enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration, from recommendations by the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Also in 2016, the ICAO set limits for carbon emissions of international air traffic between participating countries for 2021 through 2035. ICAO has also initiated a plan called Provisions in the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). These guidelines would give airlines some freedom of choice in limiting emissions. If realized, it could prevent significant pollution from the airline industry in years to come. Options that airlines could choose include setting more efficient flightpaths and reducing delays, using sustainable lower-carbon alternative fuels, and investing in carbon offsets.

Carbon offsets mean that airlines would “compensate” for emissions from use of carbon-based fuels by paying for renewable energy programs or other conservation measures intended to reduce pollution.

However, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, the CORSIA standards will not substantially reduce aircraft emissions, and further action is needed.

Several airlines are exploring ways to reduce their carbon footprint by offsetting emissions, buying sustainable fuel, using lighter aircraft, or doing research.

JetBlue started to offset some carbon dioxide emissions by partnering with Carbonfund, a nonprofit specializing in carbon reduction and climate solutions. The airline plans to start using sustainable aviation fuel from Neste on flights from San Francisco. Nestes’ fuel uses 100% waste materials, and apparently can reduce carbon emissions by up to 80%.

In 2018, United Airlines stated it would reduce carbon emissions by 50% in the coming decades. United also intends to invest more than $2 billion yearly in better fuel-efficiency and conservation, and using more biofuels.

Delta Air Lines is also promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing carbon offsets. Further, they will invest $1 billion over the next 10 years to fund projects that would limit environmental damage caused by global air travel. Delta has ambitions to become the first carbon-neutral airline worldwide and plans to fund projects to reduce carbon pollution.

Newer fuel technologies include hydrogen or electric-powered flight, but these solutions are far from becoming a reality on large commercial airlines. Hydrogen fuel cells are more powerful than jet fuel, but the fuel tanks are too large. A similar problem confronts electric flight because the battery weight is prohibitive for large aircraft.

A few startups and airlines flying very small planes have begun to test or initiate short-range flights. ZeroAvia has test-flown a plane with a hydrogen fuel cell system, and is working on a solution for planes that can carry up to 19 passengers. Harbour Air hopes to operate an all-electric fleet of seaplanes. They are modifying some of their aircraft with a battery-electric propulsion system.

NYLCV supports research and progress toward decreasing emissions in the airline industry.