How United Airlines May End Up Saving The Environment

United Airlines has announced that they’ll reduce greenhouse gas emissions 100% by 2050, making a bolder claim than world airlines through trade association IATA which commit to a 50% reduction in carbon footprint by 2050. Both goals are far enough off as to be largely symbolic, but what’s got great potential here is the path United plans to pursue to get there.

They’re “committing to a multimillion-dollar investment in revolutionary atmospheric carbon capture technology known as Direct Air Capture – rather than indirect measures like carbon-offsetting.”

United intends to make a multimillion-dollar investment in 1PointFive, Inc., a partnership between Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, a subsidiary of Occidental (NYSE:OXY), and Rusheen Capital Management. 1PointFive’s mission is to curb the rise in global temperatures by physically removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air using Direct Air Capture technology licensed from Carbon Engineering.

…[This] will help 1PointFive build the first industrial-sized Direct Air Capture plant in the United States. A single plant is expected to capture and permanently sequester one million tons of CO2 each year, the equivalent of the work of 40 million trees, but covering a land area about 3,000 times smaller.

Right now actually removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it is too expensive, but United could help drive technological innovation, and bring the practice up to a scale where it’s a real viable tool.

Carbon Offsets Aren’t A Solution

Edward Russell writes at Skift “it’s unclear whether the decision to invest in something called direct carbon sequestration plants is any better than the industry norm of buying offsets” but that seems quite wrong.

Delta’s commitment to carbon neutrality lets carbon offsets do most of the heavy lifting, so today amounts largely to vaporware. Investment in new technology is going to have to make the difference long term.

Many carbon offsets are questionable at best, whether the projects actually get done, whether they reduce carbon on net (often the projects themselves have a carbon footprint) and whether the same offset gets sold only once.

And to achieve the scale necessary to offset not just aviation but all industrials to truly become carbon neutral, the land needed would trade off significantly with agriculture and drive up the price of food creating real problems in the developing world.

The CEO of Lufthansa says that when given the choice almost no passengers buy carbon offsets so maybe it’s not even as much of virtue signal as you might think.

Biofuels Aren’t Ready To Save The World

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker has said his airline is more environmentally-friendly than United, because they fly newer planes. And today that’s true. United’s biofuels efforts, too, may be just a pipe dream. Current biofuel technology is simply too resource-intensive to be useful, putting pressure on food supplies too.

To limit global warming to a 1.5C increase in temperature would require so much biofuel that it would take up to 7m square kilometres of arable land — roughly the size of Australia — to produce that much feedstock, according to a recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“If you were to replace all today’s aviation fuel with biofuel, with first-generation biofuel, it would be at the expense of 2,100 calories per person per day for everyone on the planet,” says Prof Berners-Lee. “It would take almost all of humankind’s calorific requirements . . . So that is absolutely not a solution.”

United reiterates its investment in “development and use of sustainable aviation fuel” but while the cost of solar power is coming down and new technology may replace carbon eventually and benefit the environment, biofuels haven’t yet demonstrated the same potential.

Carbon Capture Offers A Direct Solution To The Problem

United’s announcement follows payment processor Stripe which is going to fund direct carbon removal from the atmosphere. This has the potential to be huge if it spurs technological innovation and brings down the cost. Add in United, and we start to see a snowball of major companies backing efforts that could change the world for the better.

United alone won’t make that difference but their investment, if it brings more companies along and brings more investment dollars, could push technological boundaries and bring down costs so that we have real technological solutions to environmental risk.

Air Travel Could Become A Net Positive For The Environment

Air travel is roughly 4% of global carbon output, split half each between commercial and cargo flying. If healthy airlines invest in technologies that push the frontiers of solving carbon emissions and bring down the cost of implementing those technologies, there isn’t just the potential of reducing the carbon footprint of airlines but also the potential to make it viable for other industries to do the same.

In other words, investment in direct capture and removal of carbon emissions from the atmosphere has spillover benefits from the 2% of emissions represented by commercial aviation to the 98% of emissions that isn’t. And in that way, air travel spending can have an outsized benefit for the environment going forward.

Far from being a tradeoff, travel or save the environment, heat your home or save the environment, eat meat or save the environment, our only possible salvation consistent with what’s political possible and with improving world living standards comes from new technological innovation to address climate.

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. Thanks for serious coverage of this issue rather than ignoring it like other bloggers!

    I think this is a good step in the right direction. I will favor United somewhat in future travel for having a plan.

    This is a critical issue and there are reasonable debates to be had about biofuel, offsetting, hydrogen, ammonia, batteries, etc., but that debate and research has to start somewhere. As these technologies mature (and we don’t know which ones will win out for which missions just yet), more market demand for “green aviation,” is no doubt a good thing.

    A few disagreements with parts of your post:
    -Fallacious to say that air travel is actually good for the environment. It isn’t. But to the extent that we do travel, the extent that we put market pressure on any travel company to diminish environmental impacts is helpful.
    -I don’t do carbon offsets through the airline because instead I do them through a end of year in a lump sum through a 501(c) organization that’s more favorable from a taxation standpoint and also I can carefully research the credibility beforehand. Just because Lufthansa isn’t seeing it doesn’t mean people aren’t doing it.
    -Carbon offset verifiability and accountability is a big issue, but major progress is being made by markets such as California’s and the EU’s. This issue touches more than just airlines, but given the fundamental physics that makes it hard to address direct scope emissions from aviation at this point, offsetting may be necessary in the near term. It brings a powerful human tool (market economics) to bear.

    Would appreciate more coverage of this in the future. For instance:
    -Airbus is investing billions into developing a clean-sheet family of green-hydrogen passenger plane and hopefully coming to market within two decades.
    -Battery electric aviation at short ranges may come to fruition within 1-2 years (Harbour Air, Eviation Alice)

  2. It just shows you that attacking the air travel industry is extremist virtue signaling: 2% is a rounding error. It won’t make a dent in the reductions of emissions.
    If you really want to reduce emissions, look at the energy and farming industry.

  3. Claiming the air travel is good for the environment on this basis is the kind of argument you’d try as a Hail Mary in a debate round rather than any kind of serious engagement with the facts. If the choice is between traveling and not traveling—emitting and not emitting—air travel is one of the worst decisions. If the argument is that air travel on United is very slightly less bad now than it was before, maybe, but the difference is negligible. To claim otherwise is hilarious but wrong.

  4. The only way to travel long-haul international – and the quality of life and enlightening experience that comes from it – is via air. So the best way forward is similar to what United is proposing.

    Kudos to United for doing this, and for getting in front of the issue.

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