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How Airlines Are Working to Reduce Their Carbon Footprint

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The future looks greener for the airline industry.

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The future looks greener for the airline industry.

Finally, the airline industry is making some serious headway on scaling back on emissions, making greater contributions to carbon offsets, and looking to minimize its environmental impact.

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JetBlue just became the latest airline to make a substantial commitment to reducing its environmental impact. The carrier plans to offset the carbon dioxide emissions for all of its domestic flights starting in July 2020. The move will make it the first major U.S. airline to go totally carbon neutral for all domestic air travel.

JetBlue will also start flying aircraft powered by biofuel on flights out of San Francisco International Airport beginning in mid-2020.

The initiative is the latest from an airline industry where, although a lot of work still needs to be done, some noteworthy strides are finally being made.

Air France began offsetting 100 percent of the carbon emissions on all of its domestic flights on January 1, 2020, meaning that more than 450 daily flights are now carbon neutral thanks to investments Air France is making in carbon-offset programs.

Last April, Delta announced that it would offset the emissions for all of its April 22 (Earth Day) flights into and out of New York, Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Raleigh–Durham, and Atlanta—the equivalent of more than 300,000 fliers. The offsets went to the Conservation Coast, a network of protected areas on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast, where projects include reducing deforestation, increasing biodiversity, fostering eco-tourism, and engaging local communities.

Delta first launched its carbon offset program back in 2007, and the airline has vowed to cap carbon emissions at 2012 levels through the ongoing purchase of carbon offsets.

In 2018, United Airlines came out with the news that it was reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050, compared to its 2005 emissions levels. The carrier also presented some of its other environmental goals, such as relying more on sustainable aviation biofuels, investing in fuel-efficient aircraft, and eliminating single-use plastic stirring sticks and cocktail picks.

United has partnered with Sustainable Travel International to develop its Eco-Skies CarbonChoice Program, which allows passengers to calculate their carbon footprint based on their flights and donate the amount needed to offset it (using money or miles) to carbon reduction projects.

Other airlines have similar carbon offset proposals. For instance, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue have both partnered with Carbonfund.org to give travelers the opportunity to offset their flights. Air Canada works with Toronto-based offset provider Less Emissions to support its emissions offset program.

American Airlines does not have a consumer carbon offset program, but in its most recent corporate responsibility report, the carrier stated that it purchases renewable energy to offset its indirect emissions and that 100 percent of the electricity purchased at its headquarters at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is now from renewable resources.

Remind us what carbon offsets are, again

Carbon offsets are financial invesments in projects and organizations that help reduce the impact of CO2 emissions. So, in the above Delta/Conservation Coast example, to offset the CO2 emissions resulting from those Delta Earth Day flights meant contributing to projects that, among other things, protect trees (which if you remember from science class, absorb CO2), helping to negate the impact of the emissions.

The concept has been controversial, but according to Paloma Zapata, CEO of nonprofit organization Sustainable Travel International, airlines’ carbon offset programs really do stand to make a difference.

“They actually do have an impact,” said Zapata, adding that offset programs have come a long way in the past decade. Ten years ago, Zapata said, the carbon offset industry was very fragmented and largely unregulated. Now, she said, the programs have been vetted and verified.

Furthermore, airlines are relying less on the generosity (read guilt) of consumers to make those contributions and are increasingly making them themselves, not least because they will soon be required to.

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International agreements requiring air travel become greener

The International Civil Aviation Organization in 2016 introduced a Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (known as CORSIA) with the goal of ensuring that all growth in international flight capacity after 2020 is carbon neutral. In order to comply with that agreement, airlines will, among other things, need to purchase emission offsets to compensate for any increase in their own emissions from this year forward.

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The International Air Transport Association has outlined some additional climate ambitions for the airline industry as well. The global trade organization has asked for an average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5 percent per year from 2009 to 2020, and a net reduction in aviation CO2 emissions of 50 percent by 2050, relative to 2005 levels (see United’s commitment above).

To fly or not to fly

So, what does this all mean for consumers who want to do better by the Earth and still travel?

The aviation industry accounts for about 2 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which is working to monitor and encourage the airlines on their path to making significant changes that could have a lasting environmental impact.

“You can’t tell people not to go to Cousin Ralph’s for Thanksgiving and do a video conference instead. That isn’t going to cut it. But small choices can make big differences,” David Doniger, NRDC’s senior strategic director for the climate and clean energy program, told USA Today.

Instead of avoiding flying altogether, the organization advises travelers to make informed decisions about flying. Along those lines, the NRDC regularly issues an Aviation Biofuels Scorecard to encourage carriers to support the adoption of truly sustainable biofuels. In its most recent scorecard, from 2017, Air France/KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Jet Blue, and United were ranked as “leading airlines” with the strongest commitments to the cause.

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And while using more biofuels, reducing emissions, and buying carbon offsets are all initiatives that the international airline industry has committed to by signing international agreements such as CORSIA, pressure from passengers is making a difference, too.

According to Zapata, the airlines are being motivated by two main factors: regulatory bodies that are moving to cap emissions and require greater offsets, and consumers’ growing awareness of and concern for environmental issues.

“[The airlines] are responding to the needs of the market,” said Zapata, noting that increasingly these are the efforts that eco-conscious travelers want to see more of. And to resonate and connect with those travelers, carriers are responding by doing better by the planet.

This article originally appeared on April 26, 2019, and was updated on January 8, 2020, to reflect current information.

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