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.
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.