Bucking the rest of the airline industry, United Airlines announced that it plans to be “100% green” by 2050—but it won’t be getting there with carbon offsets. Instead, the airline will be investing in a carbon capturing technology called Direct Air Capture.
United Airlines announced a partnership with the energy company Occidental to store “millions of metric tons” of carbon dioxide “securely stored deep underground.” The subterranean storage will be built to create the environmental equivalent of planting more than 40 million trees each year, the company said.
“If we can do that, climate change is solvable. If we don’t however, I believe that we’re heading for large, irreversible changes to the planet,” said Scott Kirby, United’s CEO. “We’re hoping to lead the effort and finally get the conversation started.”
Kirby declined to reveal the cost of the partnership and what the near-term timeline for completing the underground storage system. He did say the project was a “multi-million dollar” investment.
Over the last decade, carbon offsetting has largely been embraced by the airline industry. Investments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by airlines are considered an obvious way to address the environmental damage caused by the past decade’s rise of long-haul air travel. From a marketing perspective, it’s also a response to calls for “flight shaming” that have been raised by climate change activists such as Greta Thunberg.
This past January, JetBlue announced that every domestic flight would be “carbon neutral” by July 2020. Meanwhile, Delta, United and American all offer customers the ability to offset their flights. In fact, as consumers become more aware of how harmful flying is to the environment, airline’s have turned to including offsets in their marketing.
Generally, carbon offsets represent a payment towards clean energy. Sometimes, these efforts can be is as simple as planting trees. However, a Bloomberg investigation published yesterday found that one of the largest carbon offsetting companies misled the corporations investing in such projects. The bottom line for Kirby is that there’s no silver bullet for airlines in the quest to neutralize aviation’s production of carbon.
“The reality is that traditional carbon offset programs simply can’t come close to offsetting the 4,000 times increase in man made carbon emissions. It’s just mathematically impossible,” said Kirby.
Ironically, airlines’ emissions were already down 55% as the airline’s been flying well below capacity because of the pandemic’s effects on the travel industry. Kirby said that he’d be encouraging other airline executives to join in the project, but that it was a passion project for him as the company’s leader.
“We’re willing to move a little faster,” said Kirby.