September 28, 2023

The worst of the pandemic may be over for airlines, but the industry faces another looming crisis: an accounting for its contribution to climate change.

Industry is under increasing pressure to do something to reduce and ultimately eliminate emissions from travel, but it is not going to be easy. Some solutions, like hydrogen fuel cells, show promise, but it is unclear when they will be available, if at all. This leaves companies few options: they can tweak to lower efficiency, wait for technology to improve, or invest today to develop viable options for the future.

“It’s a big crisis, it’s 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 Economic Co-operation and Development. “It is a sector that is difficult to reduce. It will always emit some carbon. “

Experts say commercial air travel accounts for around 3 to 4 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the US. And while aircraft become more efficient with each new model, the growing demand for flights outpaces these advances. The United Nations predicts that aircraft emissions of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, will triple by 2050. Researchers at the International Clean Transport Council say emissions may rise even faster.

Before the pandemic, thanks to the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, won a “flying disgrace” worldwide, which seeks to discourage air traffic in favor of more environmentally friendly options such as rail. There were first signs that air traffic in Germany and Sweden may have decreased. The French legislature is now considering a ban on short flights that can be replaced by train travel.

Investors urge companies to disclose more about their efforts to reach out to lawmakers on climate issues too. And some large corporations, with employees around the world occupying high-quality business-class seats, are reviewing travel budgets to cut costs and emissions.

The industry does not lose urgency. United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby speaks often about the need to address climate change, but even he admits that it will be difficult for the industry to clean up its actions. He wants United and other airlines to try different things and see what works.

“It’s the biggest long-term problem our generation faces. It is the greatest risk to the globe, ”Kirby said in a recent interview. “There are a lot of things we can compete with, but we should all try to improve climate change.”

Efforts are underway to electrify small aircraft for short flights – including one supported by United – but doing the same for longer, larger flights will be difficult, perhaps impossible. Commercial aircraft like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A320, which can carry a few hundred passengers, require an immense amount of energy to reach cruising altitude – more energy than modern batteries can efficiently deliver.

One day, hydrogen fuel cells and synthetic jet fuel could help decarbonize the industry, and pilot projects have already started, mostly in Europe, where Airbus 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 commercial aircraft can only run on “sustainable” jet fuel made from waste, plants and other organic materials.

At a petrochemical facility outside of Houston, Neste US and Texmark Chemicals convert imported undistilled diesel into renewable jet fuels. The undistilled diesel is made from used cooking oil and waste from vegetable and animal processing plants.

The Finnish company Neste is the world’s largest producer of renewable jet fuel. US customers include American Airlines, JetBlue and Delta Air Lines.

United, which buys renewable jet fuel from Fulcrum BioEnergy and World Energy, recently announced a deal with more than a dozen large corporate customers including Deloitte, HP and Nike that will result in the airline about 3.4 this year Buys millions of gallons of sustainable fuel. American has an agreement to buy nine million gallons of such fuel over several years, and Delta plans to replace one-tenth of its jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2030.

“There is tremendous 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 today and 2023 we will increase our production by at least 15-fold.”

Neste produces 35 million gallons of renewable aviation fuel and hopes to reach 515 million gallons annually by the end of 2023 by ramping up production at refineries in Singapore and Rotterdam, the Netherlands. This is enough to fuel almost 40,000 wide-body flights between New York and London or well over a year of prepandemic air traffic between the two cities.

However, it’s important to put these numbers in perspective. American airlines consumed more than 18 billion gallons of fuel in 2019, and the entire country consumed more than 100 billion gallons of petroleum products annually.

Rystad Energy, a Norwegian consultancy, predicts that renewable fuels will become increasingly economical after 2030 and will provide 30 percent of all aviation fuel by 2050. However, IHS Markit, a US consultancy, estimates that sustainable jet fuel will make up only 15 percent of all jet fuels by 2050.

Renewable jet fuel also has its limits. According to Daniel Evans, global director of refining and marketing at IHS Markit, the fuel reduces CO2 emissions by only 30 to 50 percent compared to traditional jet fuel. In addition, the production of the fuel in the management of the raw materials can lead to deforestation.

Some companies want to get around these problems by avoiding agricultural crops. Fulcrum, in which United has invested, plans to build a plant in the UK to produce jet fuel from landfill and other waste. Red Rock Biofuels, a Colorado company, hopes to use wood waste biomass.

However, the development of renewable fuels from waste or substances like fast growing algae and ryegrass has been frustratingly slow.

“It’s going to be a real track,” said Mr. Evans. “Even if you burn 100 percent biofuel, you still won’t be carbon neutral.”

According to Michael E. Webber, chief science and technology officer at Engie, a French utility working on advanced jet fuels, biofuels are about 50 percent more expensive to make than traditional fuel.

Hydrogen offers another option, though probably not for several decades. Instead of batteries or fuel motors, the potential hydrogen-powered aircraft of the future would be powered by hydrogen tanks and fuel cells, although technology would need to be further developed to reduce the size of the tanks and cells. The hydrogen could be produced using renewable energy sources such as wind and sun to reduce emissions to warm the planet. However, experts say such fuels cost two to three times as much as traditional fuels.

In several European countries, refineries are also required to produce and blend renewable jet fuel. The European Union is funding Airbus’ development of a hydrogen-powered aircraft, and the French government is encouraging Air France to research a synthetic jet fuel.

In the United States, federal support so far has been minimal. Renewable jet fuel manufacturers receive a $ 1 per gallon subsidy under existing federal biodiesel tax credits. However, a bill introduced in-house earlier this month would provide for a tax credit starting at $ 1.50 per gallon. A tax on carbon emissions could help make alternative fuels more competitive compared to conventional jet fuel in the future.

Another option that many airlines have turned to is carbon offset payments. By purchasing offsetting, a company or individual is effectively paying someone else to plant or not cut trees or take other steps to reduce greenhouse gases.

However, the benefits of some offsets are difficult to measure – it’s hard to know, for example, whether landowners would have cut trees if they hadn’t been paid to maintain wood, a common type of offsets. United’s chief executive officer, Mr Kirby, is skeptical that such compensation payments will be effective.

“Traditional CO2 offsets are a marketing initiative. They wash green, ”he said. “Even in the few cases where they are real and make a difference, they are so small that they cannot be scaled to solve the global problem.”

United is helping passengers and corporate customers buy offsets, but Mr Kirby said the company is focusing more on sustainable fuel and removing and storing carbon over the long term.

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 facilities that will 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 the atmosphere.

“It’s the only solution I know that can zero us out as a globe because the others just don’t work if you understand the math,” Kirby said.

Such efforts have long been dismissed as impractical, but companies are increasingly investing money in them as investors and activists pressurize companies to decarbonize. Mr Kirby said such investments would help reduce costs. However, some experts warn that direct air sensing can help industries that are difficult to decarbonize, but that the ultimate goal should be to tackle the problem at the source.

“If you can avoid the emissions at all, it’s so much cheaper and easier than pulling them back out,” said Jennifer Wilcox, an Energy Department official and expert on direct air sensing.

Despite the daunting challenges, Mr. Kirby is optimistic that investments in alternative fuels and carbon capture technology will yield a breakthrough.

“The near future is about getting them to work economically,” he said. “As soon as you cross that threshold, you will have an exponential increase.”