Carbon Dioxide Emissions from a plane
Harrison Haines,

Planes are responsible for nearly 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions. To combat its effect on global warming, the airline industry has pledged to hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. As airlines move towards more innovative in-flight experiences, they are also consciously implementing strategies for more fuel-efficient aircraft. Airlines are currently offsetting carbon emissions while testing green fuel and sustainable technology options.

As global warming persists, airlines are focusing on these four key strategies to help reduce their net carbon emissions.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is made from renewable sources, such as plants or used cooking oil. It is a green fuel option for aircraft that can cut flights’ carbon emissions by around 80%, depending on how it is made. At the moment, some airlines are testing this by mixing their oil fuel with SAF. 

SAF has yet to replace traditional oil for two reasons — it’s expensive and it’s not 100% clear if planes can run on only SAF. Aircraft engines designed for petroleum-based fuel rely on the oily qualities to lubricate internal parts and protect gaskets and seals.

Boeing is studying the issue and has committed to ensuring its planes are certified for 100% SAF by 2030.

Carbon Offsetting

Offsetting is the reduction, or removal, of produced carbon emissions by compensating for emissions elsewhere. Offsetting allows airlines to “neutralize” their proportion of an aircraft’s carbon emissions on a particular journey by investing in carbon reduction projects. International Air  Transport Association reports that over 30 IATA member airlines have introduced an offset program by adding it to web-sales engines (carbon offsetting ticket options for customers) or integrating it with a third-party offset provider.

Despite this being the most accessible strategy there are setbacks. Scientific uncertainty, lack of transparency, and international quality standards are all things that make it hard if those using offsets are cutting and reinvesting in the right amount of emissions to reach a real net zero.

Direct Air Capture

Direct air capture (DAC) is probably the cooler technology. DAC chemically removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and permanently stores it underground. The technology has yet to be proven up to scale. Not to mention, it’s expensive– costing hundreds of dollars to capture just one ton of CO2.

United Airlines is one of the partners in 1PointFive Inc’s project in Texas, which hopes to become the world’s first commercial direct air capture facility with a capacity to remove 1 million tons of CO2 from the air annually.

Electric and Hydrogen Fuels

With the rise of electric cars, airline companies have wondered whether battery capacity can be scaled up to power aircraft.; or if hydrogen fuels made with renewable power can be produced in the quantities needed. However, these technologies are still being tested and far from commercial use.