U.S. airlines to go net-zero carbon emissions by 2050

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Airplane in the sky sunset [Credit: StudioByTheSea/Shutterstock.com]
U.S. airlines are upping their commitment to carbon reduction.

The member carriers of Airlines for America (A4A) have collectively committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The move is a significant step for the organization, going well beyond the commitments that U.S. government and the airline industry globally have made to reduce emissions by 50% of 2005 levels by 2050.

A4A members also pledged to work with the government, producers and other stakeholders toward a goal of making 2 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) available to U.S. aircraft operators by 2030.

"We are proud of our record on climate change. But we know the climate change challenge our country and the world faces has only continued to intensify," A4A CEO Nick Calio said in a prepared statement Tuesday evening. "Today, we embrace the need to take even bolder, more significant steps to address this challenge."

A4A consists of Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and United along with cargo airlines Atlas Air, FedEx and UPS.

SAF producers and airlines estimate that such fuel can deliver emissions reductions of up to 80% in comparison with conventional jet fuel. It can be produced from various feedstocks, including animal fats, vegetable oils, forestry residue and garbage.

But reaching 2 billion gallons of annual availability for U.S. carriers by 2030 will require an annual average production increase of 84% until that time, A4A said. IATA estimates that annual production of SAF is currently 13 million gallons, a tiny fraction of the approximately 80 billion gallons per year of fuel that airlines were using prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

While pledging to partner in efforts to produce SAF and to undertake other carbon reduction steps, A4A also called on the federal, state and local governments to provide more policy support and said Congress could include such support in any upcoming infrastructure legislation. President Joe Biden put forward a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal Wednesday.

Examples of such support could include a tax credit to spur SAF production, further modernization of the air traffic management system to enhance efficiency and backing for emerging technologies like carbon capture and sequestration, among other items, Calio said.

Some U.S. airlines had previously committed to being carbon neutral by 2050 or earlier, including Delta, American and United.

In Delta's case, it committed last year to mitigating all of its emissions by 2030 and beyond. United, meanwhile, recently pledged to be 100% "green" by 2050 but without using carbon offsets, which fit under the definition of net zero.

In order to help it achieve that ambitious goal, United announced an investment in December in carbon capture technology, which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

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