The worst of the pandemic may be over for airlines, but the industry faces another looming crisis: accounting for its contribution to climate change.
The industry is under increasing pressure to do something to reduce and possibly eliminate emissions from travel, but it won’t be easy. Some solutions, like hydrogen fuel cells, show promise, but it is not known when they will be available, if ever. This leaves few options for companies: they can make changes to increase efficiency, wait for technology to improve, or invest today to help create viable options for the future.
“This is a great crisis, this is an urgent crisis – a lot needs to be done soon,” said Jagoda Egeland, aviation policy expert at the International Transport Forum, a unit of the Organization for Cooperation and Development. economic development. “It is a difficult sector to reduce. It will always emit carbon.
Experts say commercial air travel accounts for about 3 to 4 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. And as airplanes become more efficient with each new model, the growing demand for flights exceeds these advancements. The United Nations expects emissions of carbon dioxide from planes, a major greenhouse gas, to triple by 2050. Researchers at the International Council for Clean Transportation say emissions could increase even more quickly.
Before the pandemic, a ‘flying shame’ movement, which aims to discourage air travel in favor of greener options like rail, was gaining ground around the world thanks to Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist. There were early signs that he may have cut back on air travel to Germany and Sweden. Today, French lawmakers are considering a ban on short flights which can be replaced by train travel.
Investors are pushing companies to disclose more of their efforts to lobby lawmakers on climate issues as well. And some large companies, whose employees travel the world and occupy comfortable business-class seats, are revising travel budgets to reduce expenses and emissions.
The urgency is not lost on the industry. Scott Kirby, the managing director of United Airlines, often talks about the need to tackle climate change, but even acknowledges that it will be difficult for the industry to clean up. He wants United and other airlines to try different things and see what works.
“This is the biggest long term problem our generation faces. It’s the biggest risk to the world, ”Kirby said in a recent interview. “There are a lot of things we can compete on, but we should all be trying to make a difference on climate change. “
Efforts are being made to electrify small planes for short flights – including one supported by United – but doing the same for longer, larger flights will be difficult, if not impossible. Commercial planes like the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A320, which can carry a few hundred passengers, require an immense amount of power to reach cruising altitude – more power than modern batteries can efficiently deliver.
Someday, hydrogen fuel cells and synthetic jet fuel could help decarbonize the industry, and pilot projects have already started, mostly in Europe, where Airbus has announced plans to build a zero-emission aircraft by 2035. Boeing has focused on developing more fuel efficient aircraft and is committed to ensuring that all of its commercial aircraft can fly exclusively on “sustainable” jet fuel made from waste, plants and materials. other organic matter.
“It’s going to be a real stretch.”
At a petrochemical plant outside of Houston, Neste US and Texmark Chemicals convert imported undistilled diesel into renewable jet fuels. Undistilled diesel is made from used cooking oil and waste from plant and animal processing plants.
Neste, a Finnish company, is the world’s largest producer of renewable jet fuel. Its US customers include American Airlines, JetBlue and Delta Air Lines.
United, which buys renewable jet fuel from Fulcrum BioEnergy and World Energy, recently announced an agreement with more than a dozen major corporate customers, including Deloitte, HP and Nike, which will result in the airline’s purchase of approximately 3.4 million gallons of sustainable fuel this year. . American has an agreement to purchase nine million gallons of the fuel over several years, and Delta has announced plans to replace a tenth of its jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2030.
“There is enormous growth potential for sustainable aviation fuel,” said Jeremy Baines, president of Neste US. “It’s a niche market today, but it’s growing very quickly. Between now and 2023, we will increase our production by at least 15 times.
Neste produces 35 million gallons of renewable aviation fuel and hopes to reach 515 million gallons per year by the end of 2023 by ramping up production at refineries in Singapore and Rotterdam, the Netherlands. That’s enough to power nearly 40,000 wide-body flights between New York and London, or well over a year of air travel before the pandemic between the two cities.
But it’s important to put these numbers in perspective. U.S. airlines used more than 18 billion gallons of fuel in 2019, and the country as a whole consumes more than 100 billion gallons of petroleum products per year.
Rystad Energy, a Norwegian consulting firm, predicts that renewable fuels will become increasingly economical after 2030 and provide 30 percent of all aviation fuel by 2050. But IHS Markit, a US consulting firm, estimates that sustainable jet fuel will only represent 15 percent of all jet fuel by 2050.
Renewable jet fuel also has its limits. According to Daniel Evans, global head of refining and marketing at IHS Markit, the fuel reduces carbon emissions by just 30 to 50 percent compared to conventional jet fuel. In addition, fuel production can cause deforestation when the raw materials are cultivated.
Some companies want to get around these problems by avoiding agricultural crops. Fulcrum, in which United is invested, plans to build a plant in Britain to produce jet fuel from landfill waste and other waste. Red Rock Biofuels, a Colorado company, hopes to use woody biomass waste.
But the development of renewable fuels from waste or substances like fast-growing algae and switchgrass has been frustratingly slow.
“It’s going to be a real stretch,” said Evans. “Even if you burn 100% biofuel, it still won’t make you carbon neutral. “
Biofuels are also around 50% more expensive to manufacture than conventional fuels, according to Michael E. Webber, scientific and technological director of Engie, a French utility working on advanced jet fuels.
Hydrogen offers another possibility, but probably not for several decades. Instead of batteries or fuel engines, the potential hydrogen airplane of the future would run on hydrogen tanks and fuel cells, although technology needs to be advanced to reduce the size of tanks and cells. Hydrogen could be made with renewable energy sources like wind and sun to reduce global warming emissions. But these fuels cost two to three times more than conventional fuels, experts say.
Several European countries also require refiners to produce and blend renewable jet fuel. The European Union financially supports the development by Airbus of a hydrogen aircraft, and the French government encourages Air France to look for a synthetic jet fuel.
In the United States, federal support so far has been minimal. Renewable jet fuel producers receive a $ 1-per-gallon subsidy as part of existing federal biodiesel tax credits, but a bill introduced this month in the House would offer a tax credit starting at $ 1. , $ 50 per gallon. A tax on carbon emissions could help make alternative fuels more competitive with conventional jet fuel in the future.
Should airlines offset or store carbon?
Another option that many airlines have turned to is carbon offsetting. By purchasing compensation, a business or individual is effectively paying someone else to plant or not to plant trees or to take other measures to reduce greenhouse gases.
But the benefits of some offsets are hard to measure – it’s hard to know, for example, whether landowners would have cut down trees if they hadn’t been paid to preserve timber, a common type of compensation. United chief executive Mr Kirby is skeptical of the effectiveness of these offsets.
“Traditional carbon offsets are a marketing initiative; they’re greenwashing, ”he said. “Even in the rare cases where they are real and make a difference, they are so small that they cannot evolve to solve the global problem.”
United is helping passengers and corporate customers buy offsets, but Kirby said the company is focusing more on sustainable fuel and carbon removal and storage in perpetuity.
In December, the airline announced it was investing in 1PointFive, a joint venture between Occidental Petroleum and a private equity firm that plans to build factories that suck carbon dioxide out of the air and store the gas deep underground. . This approach would theoretically allow United and other airlines to remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as their planes put in it.
“This is the only solution I know of that can help us bring ourselves as a globe to zero, because the others, if you understand math, they just don’t work,” Kirby said.
Such efforts have long been seen as unachievable, but companies are investing more and more money in them as investors and activists pressure companies to decarbonize. Mr Kirby said such investments would help reduce costs. But some experts warn that while direct air capture can help hard-to-decarbonize industries, the ultimate goal should be to tackle the problem at the source.
“If you can avoid the emissions in the first place, it’s so much cheaper and easier than having to take it out,” said Jennifer Wilcox, Department of Energy official and direct air capture expert. .
Despite the formidable challenges, Kirby is optimistic that investments in alternative fuels and carbon capture technology will lead to a breakthrough.
“In the short term, it’s about getting them to work economically,” he said. “Once you cross that threshold, you will have an exponential increase. “