United Airlines revises target, now aims for 100% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

United Airlines recently announced its most ambitious step yet in leading the fight against climate change. The pledge is to become 100% green by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 100% by 2050. To meet this goal, it would have to make industry-leading investments in new technology and sustainable fuels—not from buying carbon offsets.

In 2018, United became the first US airline to commit to reducing its total GHG emissions to half by 2050. Now the airline company will advance towards carbon neutrality by committing to a multimillion-dollar investment in revolutionary atmospheric carbon capture technology known as Direct Air Capture. Moreover, it is also continuing to invest in the development and use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

With this unprecedented announcement, United becomes the first airline in the world to announce a commitment to invest in Direct Air Capture technology.

“As the leader of one of the world’s largest airlines, I recognize our responsibility in contributing to fight climate change, as well as our responsibility to solve it,” said Scott Kirby, United’s chief executive officer. “These game-changing technologies will significantly reduce our emissions, and measurably reduce the speed of climate change—because buying carbon offsets alone is just not enough. Perhaps most importantly, we’re not just doing it to meet our own sustainability goal; we’re doing it to drive the positive change our entire industry requires so that every airline can eventually join us and do the same.”

Rather than merely taking a conventional approach to decarbonization by relying solely on the purchase of carbon offsets, United intends to make a multimillion-dollar investment in 1PointFive Inc, a partnership between Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, a subsidiary of Occidental, 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.

Direct Air Capture technology is one of the few proven ways to physically correct for aircraft emissions. It can scale to capture potentially billions of metric tons of CO2 per year. The captured CO2 will then be permanently, safely, and securely stored deep underground by Occidental, a process certified by independent third parties. The commitment—the first to be announced in the aviation industry—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 1 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.

With up to 80% less lifecycle carbon emissions than conventional jet fuel, SAF is the fastest and most effective way United is reducing its emissions. Among all airlines globally, United holds more than 50% of all publicly announced future purchase commitments to using SAF. It has the most extended history of using SAF of any US airline. Last year, United renewed its contract with Boston-based World Energy, agreeing to purchase up to 10 million gallons of cost-competitive SAF. United has used this SAF to help sustainably power every flight departing its Los Angeles hub since 2016.

Additionally, United has invested more than $30 million in California-based sustainable fuel producer Fulcrum BioEnergy, which remains the single largest investment by any airline globally in a sustainable fuel producer.

Since 2016, United has used the most SAF of any airline globally and has flown 26 million passengers on flights powered with a SAF blend, 44 billion passenger-miles on flights powered with a SAF blend, and 215,000 flights powered with a SAF blend.

United’s commitment to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050 represents another leadership position the airline has taken to reduce its impact on the environment. United has already achieved significant environmental drives. One was becoming the first airline globally to continuously incorporate SAF in regular operations, marking a significant milestone in the industry by moving beyond test programs and demonstrations to low-carbon fuel’s everyday use in ongoing operations. In 2019, the company committed $40 million toward an investment initiative focused on accelerating the development of SAF and other decarbonization technologies.

Another was operating the Flight for the Planet in 2019, which represented the most-eco-friendly commercial flight of its kind in commercial aviation history. Then becoming the first airline to fly with Boeing’s Split Scimitar winglets, which reduces fuel consumption by an additional 2% versus standard winglets; United is the largest Scimitar winglet operator today, with nearly 400 aircraft equipped with these winglets.

Further, United became the first US airline to repurpose items from the carrier’s international premium cabin amenity kits and partnering with Clean the World to donate hygiene products to those in critical need. It eliminated non-recyclable plastic stirring sticks and cocktail picks on aircraft and replacing them with a more environmentally friendly product made of 100% bamboo. Finally, it continued to replace its eligible ground equipment with cleaner, electrically powered alternatives, with nearly 45% of the fleet converted to date.

United’s award-winning Eco-Skies program represents its commitment to the environment and the actions taken every day to create a more sustainable future. Earlier this month, the Carbon Disclosure Project named United as the only airline globally to its 2020 “A List” for the airline’s actions to cut emissions, mitigate climate risks, and develop the low-carbon economy, marking the seventh consecutive year that United has had the highest CDP score among US airlines.

In 2017, Air Transport World magazine named United its Eco-Airline of the Year for the second time since it launched the Eco-Skies program. United also ranked No. 1 among global carriers in Newsweek’s 2017 Global 500 Green Rankings, one of the most recognized environmental performance assessments of the world’s largest publicly traded companies. (Story and photo courtesy of United).

To view United’s efforts at carbon sequestration, click on this video: https://youtu.be/e4Dhm09HD4c