U.S. Airlines Will Make A Big Environmental Commitment Today, But It Has An Asterisk

U.S. airlines are going to announce today that “they will back a voluntary industry target of using 3 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel in 2030” as part of a White House event. This new goal is 50% higher than one announced 18 months ago.

Commercial aviation generates about 2% of world carbon production. Statistics you see showing something more like 4% include cargo. It’s important, but aviation gets outsized attention relative to its contribution.

And as you think about your own personal contribution towards climate change, realize that not all airline ticket purchases are equal, the better the deal you get on a ticket, the less of an impact you’re having (saver award travel has extremely low effect on carbon output at the margin because it does little to influence whether a flight takes off – now or in the future – and may even serve as a signal not to operate a flight going forward).

American Airlines CEO argued biofuels weren’t a meaningful environmental effort before the pandemic, and perhaps importantly before Joe Biden became President. There’s wisdom in the position. Current biofuel technology is too resource-intensive to offer an environmental solution.

[M]any environmentalists are dismissive of biofuels as a long-term solution, particularly because a growing world population will need more food. 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.”

American Airlines turned around, favoring biofuels back in February. The President supports them, and government spend $79 billion in direct aid to airlines during the pandemic. And there’s more subsidies on the table for aviation fuel.

It’s possible that a big investment in biofuels could spur innovation that allows the technology to scale, but there’s simply no way to commit to large scale aviation biofuel at a date certain at this point. Of course a 2030 commitment like this is meaningless because of course it’s asterisked with technological developments.

United Airlines investment in direct carbon capture could wind up more significant for the environment, and so might its investment in electric planes.

The ultimate point is that there are going to need to be a lot of investments in different technologies to tackle environmental challenges, because any solution is going to have to involve innovation, not de-industrialization. The ‘global south’ has legitimate claim on improved living standards and carbon-intensive development to lift the world’s poor out of poverty will offset any reductions in carbon use in the United States and Europe.

By the way if you’re inclined to put your money where your beliefs are and engage in ESG investing (which necessarily means giving up returns, because you’re taking some profitable investments off the table) then legendary investor Cliff Asness of AQR Capital says you should be shorting ‘bad’ companies, not just excluding them from your portfolio.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. […] This was just one day after United doubled down on its own vaccine mandate declaring there would be no one working with an exemption – that anyone who did not get vaccinated would go on unpaid leave until a date to be determined either when the pandemic had subsided or new requirements were put in place. And on the same day airlines committed to increase their use of biofuels at a White House event on curtailing carbon emissions. […]


  1. United will be demonstrating its commitment to sustainable environmentally friendly growth by blending things that would otherwise go to waste, such as old SkyMall magazines, uneaten food, and deceased unvaxxed employees into our biofuel.

  2. This is all nothing about sucking up to the administration in hopes of keeping the cash coming if the bottom falls out bad enough.
    If aviation fuels can be less harmful to the environment, go for it. but move at the speed that science and free enterprise can deliver meaningful solutions and not the speed that politicians want to forget about other much more pressing political issues including foreign policy.

  3. At American, we’re much more inclusive: all of our deceased employees, both vaxxed and unvaxxed, find new purpose as the mystery meat in our inflight meals. That’s why the “turkey” tastes a little different!

  4. A desperate attempt by the White House to change the news cycle, and the willing accomplices at the U.S. airlines are playing along, so they can continue to suckle at the teat of the American taxpayers. Like we needed another example of just how much we have lost our system of governance.

  5. For information purposes, would someone please tell me what the price difference is between normal Jet Fuel and Sustainable Aviation Fuel? And are there any government subsidies involved?

    I’ve asked this before but haven’t ever had a reply
    Thank you

  6. If the federal government and airlines were really concerned about the environment and pollution, they would work together to reduce and eliminate as many lightly loaded and unprofitable flights as possible.

    Many flights today due to covid restrictions internationally are operated nearly empty. The airline has to maintain their slots and also have subsidized crews from the CARES act. No way airlines are making any money carrying 50 coach pasengers on a transatlantic 777. Its basically a waste of fuel.

    Governments and airlines must work to stop the practice of operating flights simply for slot squatting or to simply have the route as part of the network.

    If governments and airlines were truly serious about climate change, they would work to allow airlines to more easily add and drop routes where pasenger volume doesnt justify the service.

  7. Wesley,
    most airports have waived slot usage requirements for much of the pandemic.
    Air cargo rates are much higher and most passenger widebodies are carrying more cargo than they did before.
    The number of passengers you see in the cabin is normally pretty indicative of profitability but the sheer reduction in the number of international flights has pushed up fares in many markets in addition to higher cargo revenue.

  8. It is amazing how much money the government can waste (and basically force corporations to waste) on technologies that will do nothing to impact climate change while causing a boatload of unintended consequences across the economy and environment (see also: wind energy).

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