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Sustainability in aviation: Delta Air’s goals add to dialogue

It is not surprising that Delta Air Lines has declared fairly ambitious plans to become carbon neutral over the next decade and is spending USD1 billion to meet that goal. Throughout 2019 Delta’s executives fielded questions about sustainability, and the airline’s management pledged that in 2020 the company would exert more of an active voice in conversations about aviation’s role in combating climate change. 

Delta’s plans to achieve carbon neutrality have been widely deconstructed since the airline unveiled its environmental goals, and in some ways there are more questions than answers regarding how the company will attain its targets. But Delta seems aware of the challenges associated with its goals, particularly with growing scepticism about carbon offsetting. 

With limited room for manouevre in the short term, all airlines are searching for ways of mitigating environmental damage, most tellingly by the use of newer, more efficient aircraft.

Summary

  • Delta has followed through on its previous declarations that it would become more of an active voice in conversations about the environment in 2020 by stating a goal to reach carbon neutrality over the next decade. 
  • The airline acknowledges that there are efficacy issues with carbon offsets. 
  • Although Delta’s announcement has garnered some criticism for being short on substance, in reality there are few realistic short term options for the industry in mitigating its effects on climate change. 

Delta and JetBlue offer ambitious goals to reduce their respective carbon footprints 

In the first two months of 2020 there have been numerous declarations by airlines regarding their plans to slash their carbon emissions or become carbon neutral. In North America, JetBlue and Delta have made the most significant announcements. 

JetBlue has stated that it intends to become carbon neutral on all of its domestic flights in 2020. The expansion of JetBlue’s carbon offsetting, which began in 2008, should offset an additional 15 to 17 billion pounds (7 to 8 million metric tons) of emissions per year, which the airline has explained is the annual equivalent of removing more than 1.5 million passenger vehicles from the road.

See related report: Aviation sustainability: How effective is carbon offsetting? 

Increasingly throughout 2019 Delta’s executives fielded question about 'environmental, social and governance (ESG)', and how the aviation industry is responding to growing scrutiny of its environmental footprint. 

Delta CEO Ed Bastian acknowledged that the industry had “…been terrible advocates of our own cause…we’re seen in the world’s eyes as somewhat of a dirty industry, yet we have done a tremendous amount of good with all the reinvestment in our business and capital we’re investing in new engine technologies”. Mr Bastian stressed that in 2020 “I think you are going to see us become more of an active voice in the conversation [about the environment]”. 

Now Delta has pledged to become carbon neutral during the next decade, and plans to invest USD1 billion in initiatives to reach that goal.

The crux of Delta’s plans includes carbon reduction by working to decrease the use of jet fuel through its ongoing fleet renewal, weight reduction and increasing the use of sustainable fuels. Delta has one of the oldest airline fleets, with a median of 18.5 years, according to the CAPA Fleet Database. The airline is also investing in projects to remove carbon from the atmosphere, which include investment in forestry, wetland restoration, grassland conservation and other technologies. 

Additionally, Delta aims to build coalitions with industry partners, employees and other stakeholders to advance carbon reduction. 

Delta acknowledges there are shortcomings in carbon offsetting 

At a time when the momentum from flight shaming shows no signs of slowing and investors are increasingly placing importance on a company’s sustainability efforts, Delta has been touting its status as the first US airline to cap greenhouse gas emissions at 2012 levels voluntarily, through the purchase and retirement of more than 16 million carbon offsets that are verified emissions reductions. 

In tandem with airlines outlining their plans to reduce carbon emissions, there is also growing scrutiny of the effectiveness of carbon offsetting schemes. And Delta appears to recognise the growing scepticism about carbon offsetting. 

During an interview with CNBC to discuss Delta’s USD1 billion investment in carbon neutrality, Mr Bastian stated that: “Carbon offsets are not the solution, they are not enough to go around. We need to be investing in projects that make a difference. Carbon offsets have a lot of efficacy issues and in some places quite honestly they do more harm than they do good, or pay people not to do harm. That’s not really helping our planet.” 

In its prepared statement detailing its plans to achieve carbon neutrality during the next ten years, Delta stated that it would create new projects and methods to reduce its carbon footprint, and make it easier for other organisations to do the same, “all while minimising reliance on today’s limited carbon offset markets."

"To support this strategy, Delta will allocate some of its financial commitment into investment vehicles, including a dedicated fund focused on achieving its carbon neutral ambition”, the airline said.

Delta and other airlines take steps to foster necessary discourse about emissions 

Although Delta and other airlines are touting their work to combat climate change, fossil fuels burned by the industry remain the biggest contributor to emissions, and the reality is that it will take decades before alternative fuels are produced at a scale and price that are viable in their application to the airline business model.

Mr Bastian acknowledged as much in his CNBC interview, when he declared that he does not see a future where “we’re eliminating jet fuel from our footprint”. 

Delta received some pushback on its carbon neutrality plans, particularly that they were short on substance.

There is some validity to that argument, but airlines, rightly or wrongly, are just now working on definitive goals and a unified message about how they intend to combat climate change. The industry also needs to ensure its sustainability goals are met in a way that does not jeopardise various airline business models. 

There is a widespread feeling that the industry has been failing to speak with a concerted voice, particularly in making the case for the positive role it plays in global commerce and social benefits, where one in every five new jobs is generated by aviation and travel.

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