The U.S. airline industry: A green economic engine

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As members of Congress look for meaningful ways to address climate change, they might want to look to the skies above -- not for divine intervention but for environmentally friendly innovation.

Contrary to what some would have you believe, U.S. airlines are a green economic engine that continues to drive meaningful climate solutions.

Nancy N. Young
Nancy N. Young

Although we drive more than 10 million U.S. jobs, $1.5 trillion in economic activity and 5% of the nation's GDP, U.S. airlines account for only 2% of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions. Even as air traffic has increased, U.S. airlines have successfully controlled our carbon footprint, carrying 34% more passengers and cargo in 2017 than in 2000 without emitting any more carbon dioxide (CO2).

We have achieved this record by investing billions in fuel-saving aircraft and engines, cutting-edge flight management software, improved ground operations and other measures.

Thanks to such investments, U.S. airlines have improved fuel efficiency by more than 125% since 1978, preventing 4.6 billion metric tons of CO2
emissions, the equivalent of taking 25 million cars off the road each year.

Despite our strong record, we are not resting on our laurels. Since 2009, we have been active participants in a global aviation coalition that has committed to 1.5% annual average fuel efficiency improvements through 2020, with a goal to achieve carbon-neutral growth in international aviation in 2021. Further, we are working toward a 50% net reduction in CO2 emissions in 2050, relative to 2005 levels.

The initiatives we are undertaking to meet these goals are designed to responsibly limit our greenhouse gas emissions while enabling commercial aviation to continue to serve as a key contributor to the U.S. economy. In addition to driving fuel efficiency and emissions savings through improved technology, operations and infrastructure, we are dedicated to deploying commercially viable, sustainable alternative jet fuel through our Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative.

Further, aviation is the only industry worldwide to voluntarily commit to a carbon emissions offsetting and reduction agreement, one that will help ensure that we'll meet our goal of carbon-neutral growth in international aviation starting in 2021.

What's more, we support a second agreement that establishes a fuel efficiency and CO2 certification standard for future aircraft.

That pair of historic agreements reached by the International Civil Aviation Organization, the U.N. body that regulates international aviation, affirms our commitment to clean air and blue skies.

The industry isn't fighting climate change solely because it's the right thing to do. It's also a smart business move: Climate change causes more frequent and extreme weather events, which can ground planes and snarl air traffic. And fuel remains one of our largest and most volatile business expenses, which is an incentive to become even more efficient.

We are confident that the measures we are taking will continue to reduce aviation's emissions while enabling commercial aviation to continue to provide an invaluable service to our nation and its economy. Indeed, planes aren't just necessary for business trips and family vacations; they also transport essential products such as food and medicine around the globe. In 2017, $41 billion in U.S. air exports helped spur $211 billion of activity in other sectors.

Instead of looking at the facts about our industry, our climate commitment and the international agreements that support that commitment, some are calling for limiting or even eliminating air transport. That's a shame. Airlines not only keep our economy aloft, they also are helping lead the fight toward a cleaner planet.

Nancy N. Young is vice president for environmental affairs at Airlines for America.

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