Delta Claims They’ll Be Carbon Neutral Starting Next Month, And I’m… Skeptical

Worldwide airlines have talked about reducing emissions 50% by 2050 and carbon neutral growth by 2020. Delta says they’re going to start spending $100 million a year to be carbon neutral starting in March.

  • Better fuel efficiency with newer planes, use of biofuels (which are not yet viable at scale, indeed current biofuels are too resource-intensive to be effective), and better operations.

  • Reduce, re-use and recycle such as using fewer plastic bags and composting

  • Carbon removal which basically amounts to buying offsets.

  • “Stakeholder engagement” This includes “pushing for modernization of air traffic control, which Delta believes would reduce delays and fuel consumption” which is a turnaround for Delta – they used to oppose this, because they had older planes which would have required greater investment to make use of new technologies.

They say they’re going to incorporate the environment into all of their thinking, which is laudable.

Ultimately this is long on narrative, and in the near-term relies mostly on buying carbon offsets which are questionable in effectiveness and limited in supply (if every company wanted to fully offset there wouldn’t be nearly enough opportunity to go around, so Delta is in some sense just bidding up the price of offsets that will be taking place anyway).

Noble goals, and surely they’ll make progress towards those goals, but the claim that they’ll be a carbon neutral airline next month is dubious to say the least. Delta is a very good airline, maybe even half as good as they think they are. For some reason they cannot help overclaiming their virtues and successes more than their competitors.

As a consumer remember that award travel and cheap fares don’t affect the environment nearly so much as paying a lot for airline tickeets.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. For once, I find myself agreeing with you.

    Offsetting is NOT being carbon neutral. Pulling more CO2 (and NO2, whilst we’re at it) out of the atmosphere than you put in is being carbon neutral.

    Delta: If you’re listening, go and buy 100,000 acres of deforested amazon rainforest and replant trees…. Then we can talk…

  2. I get a kick out of how gullible some must be if they fall for this crap. Yet, they are also the ones who think eating meat and burning wood are the reasons for climate change, so not very surprising…. 🙂

  3. @Oh! Matron! – we could also have Delta buy 100,000 acres of deforested land in America… just because it happened here in the 1800s doesn’t make it any less destructive than what’s happening in the Amazon. But we like to blame others for these problems, not ourselves (America).

  4. Hey Gary,

    Thanks for covering this!

    Clearly, a substantial portion of the US domestic travel market has enough insight into the realities of climate change that airlines taking their emissions seriously is now a wise move for domestic US airlines (this has been true for several years in Europe). In my view, JetBlue is the leader here (makes sense given their markets), curious what AA an United will announce next.

    I’ll take some issue with your characterization of offsets. As the accounting improves, increased offset prices will have a real effect. Right now they’re very cheap because they try to address low-hanging fruit (keep a forest in a poor nation from being burned), but there are plenty of industrial processes that can also implement carbon emission reduction and higher offset prices will enable this.

    For instance, imagine you run a concrete plant (substantial carbon emissions from both energy used and the limestone chemical process).

    Carbon offsets at $5 a ton? Business as usual.
    Carbon offsets at $15 a ton? “Hmm, let’s make an effort to source our operating energy from renewables. Carbon capture and sequestration costs us about $5/ton, so now it makes sense to invest in pumping it underground instead of just dump it into the atmosphere. We’ll actually make a profit from making our operations way better from the environment.”

    It’s using markets to send signals about complex processes to help solve the outstanding challenge of our time.

  5. “…Clearly, a substantial portion of the US domestic travel market has enough insight into the realities of climate change that airlines taking their emissions seriously is now a wise move for domestic US airlines…”

    @Eric Uhm, no. Delta’s sole purpose is marketing via virtue signaling that appeals to people such as yourself.

  6. I use this forum anonymously, I don’t reference these posts in my Tinder profile. Who, exactly, am I signaling to?

    Just pointing out some economics 101. Usually Gary’s pretty insightful about that, but he has some blind spots about environmental issues.

    Carbon offsets are a way of converting environmental value to economic value. Just hoping that future posts will be more informed.

  7. This seems like virtue-signaling on Delta’s part. Let’s be real: you can’t get the vast majority of airline customers to pay ANYTHING for “reasonable” legroom. And you’re going to tell me that people will be willing to pay more to fly an airline that does “something” — we’re not exactly sure what — that’s “good for the environment? Yeah, sure.

    There are obviously some naive people who will believe anything. Heck, we’ve got a fair number of voters who think Bernie Sanders could bring a socialist utopia to America. But even those people are unlikely to spend their own money (if they have any) on their political/religious beliefs.

    At the end of the day, it’s not really an airline’s job to “reduce its carbon footprint.” Assuming such reduction is actually a good thing (heck, we’ve been told for decades how great recycling is — and now it’s turning out to be a useless money pit), that reduction isn’t going to start with airlines. It’s either going to start with customers refusing to fly (I doubt it), or research on alternative energy sources for aircraft (possible, but I’m not holding my breath in the short term). Everything else is feel good nonsense.

  8. Carbon offsets, hilarious! Paying indulgences to some company to do activities that they would do anyway. Scamming while feeling smug and self righteous, that’s just super awesome.

    Shut down by AA, and looks like now I’ll have to avoid Delta too.

  9. Just a funny thought. Using extra paper should be a carbon offset. Say what. It is true, paper companies have tree farms. Use more paper, they have to plant more trees on their tree farms to meet demand.

    Conversely, if the demand for paper goes down, they sell their forests to developers that cut down the trees and replaces them with houses.

  10. “Just before the pandemic Delta claimed they’d be carbon neutral starting in March 2020.” – That links to your own post, which clearly talks about carbon-neutral GROWTH.

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