It’s impossible to operate a global airline in 2020 without negatively impacting the environment. But with United Airlines’ latest sustainability plan, that hopefully won’t be the case forever.
Over the next three decades, United plans to go “100% green” — primarily through the use of a technique called “carbon capture and sequestration,” or CCS, which could prove to be far more impactful than the industry’s current “carbon offset” approach.
Carbon offsets typically provide funding for projects that reduce our carbon footprint through the use of environmentally friendly practices, like building wind farms or planting trees. While those programs may play a part in United’s overall plan, they won’t move the needle to the extent the airline truly needs.
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Through a series of investments, United will help provide the funding necessary to build CCS plants, which can then capture carbon from industrial sources like power plants — or even directly from the air — and store it underground, so it’s unable to enter the atmosphere.
From there, the carbon could even be used to help extract oil, through a technique called enhanced oil recovery, helping CCS plants turn a profit — and, ultimately, making it possible for United to monetize its investment.
While it might not seem like the ideal time for United to be making new financial commitments — considering the carrier’s steep pandemic-related losses — CEO Scott Kirby says the recent crisis has served to highlight the need to take action.
“The pandemic has, if anything, emphasized the importance of what we’re doing. While we were planning to invest in this, work on this project before the pandemic, what has become clear during the pandemic, even more starkly, is that we are a part of a global community, and everything that happens everywhere around the globe affects us.”
Kirby has also pledged to continue to invest in alternative fuels, which could help reduce emissions as well, though he acknowledged that electric and hydrogen propulsion aren’t feasible solutions for a long-haul airline like United.
Investing in newer planes won’t have a significant enough impact, either. While long-haul aircraft like the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner help reduce emissions by employing lighter materials and other design improvements, they still contribute a significant amount of carbon to the environment.
Kirby hopes United’s latest move will get the industry thinking about CCS as a potential solution as well. “It’s easy to think ‘I’m doing my part,’ by using traditional carbon offsets,” Kirby said. “I want to encourage them that that’s not enough, and to do more. And if we all do that, we really can solve this problem.”
Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.
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