United Airlines announced on Thursday that it is committing to cut its emissions of greenhouse gasses by 50% by 2050. The announcement reinforces United’s efforts to be the world’s most environmentally conscious airline.
Should United meet its goal, the reduced emissions will be equivalent to taking 4.5 million cars off the road, relative to 2005. (For reference, this is roughly the total number of cars in Los Angeles and New York City combined.) United is using its emissions data from 2005 due to a target set by the International Air Transport Association.
In order to meet its goal, United will take steps like using sustainable biofuels, inaugurating more fuel-efficient aircraft to its fleet, and making operational changes to cut fuel use.
“At United, we believe there is no point in setting challenging and ambitious goals without also taking tangible steps towards achieving them, especially when it comes to securing the health of our communities and our planet,” said United CEO Oscar Munoz. “While we’re proud to be first U.S. carrier taking such an ambitious step, it is a distinction we look forward to sharing as the rest of the industry catches up and makes similar commitments to sustainability.”
United’s emissions peaked in 2007 and are now 8% lower than emission levels in 2005.
The benefits of United’s commitment don’t stop at environmental advantages. A reduction in aviation fuel use could save United $15,000 per minute. Fuel is United’s second largest expense.
“This is not only good for the environment but guards against oil price instability,” said Aaron Stash, a manager of environmental strategy and sustainability at United.
“Regardless of whether oil prices rise or fall, the inherent volatility and environmental impact of fossil fuels exert their own costs, to the bottom line, the customer and the planet,” Munoz wrote. “The ultimate hedge against those costs is to transition to alternative and renewable sources of energy.”
One of the first steps that United has taken toward its goal is partnering with Agrisoma Biosciences, a Canadian agri-tech company that sends Carinata seeds that are used as the base for many aviation biofuels.
Agrimosa used its biofuels on a commercial flight for the second time on September 14, when a United 787 flew from San Francisco for Zurich. 16,000 pounds of biofuels, which is roughly 30% of the fuel required for the flight, was used in addition to traditional jet fuel. It is the longest transatlantic flight, and longest flight by a US carrier, to be powered by such a significant amount of biofuel.
“This flight is another milestone for the aviation industry’s move toward low-carbon fuels,” said Steve Fabijanski, the founder, CEO, and President of Agrisoma. “At 11 hours, it is the longest transatlantic biojet flight undertaken to date, and, with the fuel-efficient Boeing 787, represents the lowest carbon footprint commercial flight across the Atlantic. It is our second international biojet flight powered by Carinata, but there are more to come.”
At the time of writing, low-cost carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle ranks first among transatlantic carriers for fuel efficiency, according to a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation.
By increasing the use of biofuels alone, United will be able to make large steps toward its goal. Biofuels can reduce carbon emissions by up to 80% compared with traditional jet fuels. United currently uses some biofuel in Los Angeles. That biofuel, which is made from agricultural waste, comes through a partnership from a nearby refinery.
In addition to reducing emissions, United is taking a number of steps to promote environmental sustainability. The airline has committed to investing $30 million in Fulcrum BioEnergy, a sustainable aviation fuel producer. United will also purchase close to 1 billion gallons of biofuels from Fulcrum, the largest investment in biofuels in history. United is currently responsible for over 50% of the aviation industry’s commitments to biofuel.
United was the first airline to fly with Boeing’s Scimitar winglets, which reduce fuel consumption by up to 2%. United has also repurposed items from amenity kits after international flights, most notably partnering with Clean the World to donate hygiene products to people in need. United committed to eliminating plastic stirring sticks, which are not recyclable, on flights and replacing them with a product made of bamboo.
This announcement sets a precedent for airlines in the United States and around the world. United is the first US airline to publicly commit to cutting emissions and is one of the first around the world to make such a bold commitment. Cathay Pacific is another airline that has increased to reducing emissions, specifically by increasing the use of biofuels in place of standard fuels.
Over the summer, United’s top US rivals, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines. cut 2018 earnings forecasts due to a recent spike in oil prices, but United raised its target in response to increased capacity and fares.
Featured image from United Airlines