The worst time of the pandemic may be over For airlines, but the industry is facing another imminent crisis: an account of its contribution to climate change.
The industry is under increasing pressure to reduce and eventually Eliminate emissions from travel, But it will not be easy. Some solutions, such as hydrogen fuel cells, are promising, but it is unclear when they will be available, if ever. This leaves companies with few options: they can make changes to squeeze capacity, wait for technology to improve, or invest today to help create viable alternatives for the future.
“It’s a big crisis, it’s a pressure crisis – a lot more needs to be done soon,” said Jagoda Egland, an aviation policy specialist at the International Transport Forum, a unit of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “It’s a hard-to-find area. It will always emit some carbon.”
Experts say that commercial air travel accounts for about 3 to 4 percent of America’s total greenhouse gas emissions. And while aircraft become more efficient with each new model, the increasing demand for flights is outpacing those advances. The United Nations hopes that the airplane will emit carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. Treble by 2050. Researchers of the International Council on Clean Transport Says emissions can grow even faster.
Before the epidemic, A. “Flying Shame” movement, Which aims to discourage air travel in favor of green alternatives such as rail, was gaining ground globally thanks to Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Early indications were that it may have reduced air travel Germany And Sweden. Now French MPs are considering banning short flights Can be replaced by train travel.
Are investors Business ventures To be more open about their efforts to lobby MPs on climate issues as well. And some big corporations, whose employees are spread all over the world and fill luxurious business class seats, are Reviewing travel budget To reduce expenses and emissions.
The industry has not lost its urgency. United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby often speaks of the need to address climate change, but even he acknowledges that it will be difficult for the industry to clean up its task. He wants United and other airlines to try different things and see what works.
“This is the biggest long-term issue that our generation faces. This is the biggest risk to the world, “Mr. Kirby said in a recent interview.” There are many things we can compete on, but we all should try to make a difference on climate change. “
Efforts are being made to electrify small aircraft for short flights – including One supported by United – But doing so for a long time, big flights would be difficult, perhaps impossible. Commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A320, which can carry a few hundred passengers, require an excessive amount of energy to reach cruising altitude – can supply more energy efficiently than modern batteries.
Someday, hydrogen fuel cells and synthetic jets may help decarbonize the fuel industry, and pilot projects have begun, mainly in Europe, where Airbus says it plans to build A zero-emission aircraft by 2035. Boeing has emphasized Development of more fuel efficient aircraft And is committed to ensuring that all its commercial aircraft can fly exclusively “Durable” jet fuel Made of waste, plants and other organic materials.
‘This is going to be a real stretch.’
At a petrochemical plant outside Houston, Neste US and Texmark Chemicals are converting imported un-distilled diesel into renewable jet fuel. 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. Its American 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 major corporate customers, including Deloitte, HP and Nike, which would result in the airline’s purchase. About 3.4 million gallons of sustainable fuel this year. American has an agreement to purchase nine million gallons of such fuel over several years, and Delta says it plans to replace one-tenth of its jet fuel by 2030 with permanent options.
“There is a huge growth potential for sustainable aviation fuel,” said Jeremy Baines, president of Neste US, but it is a niche market today, but it is growing very rapidly. From today to 2023, we are going to increase our production by at least 15 times.
Neste produces 35 million gallons of renewable aviation fuel and expects to increase production at refineries in Singapore and Rotterdam, Netherlands to reach 515 million gallons annually by the end of 2023. This is enough to fuel close to 40,000 flights by wide-body aircraft between New York and London, or a year’s worth of pre-pandemic air travel between the two cities.
But it is important to keep those numbers in perspective. American Airlines used more than 18 billion gallons of fuel in 2019, And the entire country consumes more than 100 billion gallons of petroleum products annually.
Norwegian consulting firm, Ristad Energy, predicts that renewable fuel will become increasingly economical after 2030 and will supply 30 percent of all aviation fuel by 2050. But an American consulting firm IHS Markit estimates that sustainable jet fuel will only make up 15 percent. All jet fuel by 2050.
Renewable jet fuel also has its limitations. According to Daniel Evans, global head of refining and marketing at IHS Market, fuel reduces carbon emissions by only 30 percent to 50 percent compared to conventional jet fuel. What’s more, the production of fuel can lead to deforestation when raw materials are cultivated.
Some companies want to solve those problems by avoiding agricultural crops. Fulcrum, which has United’s investment, plans to build a plant in the UK to produce jet fuel from landfills and other wastes. Red Rock Biofuels, a Colorado company, hopes to use waste wood biomass.
But the development of renewable fuels from materials such as waste or rapidly growing algae and switch grass has been disappointingly slow.
“It’s going to be a real stretch,” Mr. Evans said. “Even if you’re burning 100 percent biofuels, it’s not going to make you carbon neutral.”
According to Michael E. Weber, chief science and technology officer at Angie, a French utility working on advanced jet fuels, biofuels are about 50 percent more expensive than conventional fuels.
Hydrogen offers another possibility, although perhaps not for many decades. Instead of batteries or fuel engines, future potential hydrogen-powered aircraft will operate with hydrogen tanks and fuel cells, although technology will need to be upgraded to reduce the size of tanks and cells. Hydrogen can be produced with renewable energy sources such as wind and sun to reduce planet-warming emissions. But such fuels cost two to three times more than conventional fuels, experts say.
Many European countries also require refiners to produce and mix renewable jet fuel. The European Union is financially supporting the development of Airbus’ hydrogen-fueled aircraft, and the French government is encouraging Air France to conduct research on synthetic jet fuels.
In the United States, federal support so far is minimal. Renewable jet fuel producers receive a $ 1 per gallon subsidy for biodiesel under the current federal tax credit, but a bill introduced in the House this month would provide a tax credit starting at $ 1.5 per gallon.
Should Airlines Carbon Offset or Store?
Another option that has been changed by many airlines is carbon offset. By purchasing an offset, a company or individual effectively pays someone else to plant or not cut trees or take other steps to reduce greenhouse gases.
But the benefits of some offsets are difficult to quantify – it is difficult to know, for example, whether landlords would have cut trees had they not been paid for wood preservation, a common type of offset. Mr. Kirby, the chief executive of United, suspects that such offsets are effective.
“Traditional carbon offsets are a marketing initiative; they are greenwashing,” he said. “Even in some cases where they are real and making a difference, they are so small that they solve the global problem. There may not be mass to do. “
United helps travelers and corporate customers buy offsets, but Mr. Kirby said the company is more focused on permanently removing and storing permanent fuels and carbon.
In December, the airline said it was investing in 1PointFive, a joint venture between Occidental Petroleum and a private equity firm that plans to build plants that suck carbon dioxide from the air and release gas deeper. Store underground. This approach would theoretically allow United and other airlines to extract as much carbon from the atmosphere as their aircraft put into it.
“This is the only solution I know of that can help us get to zero as a globe, because others, if you understand the mathematics, they don’t work,” Mr. Kirby said .
Such efforts had long been dismissed as impractical, but Corporations are pouring money into them fast As investors and activists push businesses to decarbonize. Mr. Kirby said that such an investment would help reduce costs. But some experts warn that direct air capture may help industries that are difficult to decarbonize, with the ultimate aim being to attack the problem at the source.
“If you can avoid emissions at first, it’s a lot cheaper and easier than pulling it back,” said Jennifer Wilcox, an Energy Department official and expert on direct air capture.
Despite the formidable challenges, Mr. Kirby is optimistic that investment in alternative fuels and carbon capture technology will lead to success.
“In the near term, it’s about making them work financially,” he said. “Once you cross that limit, you will have an exponential growth.”