Aviation accounts for more than 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. To put that in perspective, if global aviation were a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters, according to the European Commission. As the global middle class expands and more people can afford to travel, these figures will increase in kind. By 2020, global international aviation emissions are projected to be around 70 percent higher than they were in 2005, and the International Civil Aviation Organization forecasts that they could grow by up to 700 percent more by 2050.
Meanwhile, the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the planet is warming faster than scientists previously estimated. These realities require the global aviation industry to take serious steps to decrease their impact if they hope to play a role in a low-carbon future.
In North America, one airline stands out from the pack, as reflected by the 2018 Dow Jones Sustainability Index. Updated annually by S&P Dow Jones Indices and sustainability investing specialist RobecoSAM, the Index ranks the world’s top companies based on social and environmental impact and represents the gold standard in corporate sustainability. For the second year in a row, Alaska Airlines earned the No. 1 spot for the North American aviation sector—and, with its recent efforts, it’s easy to see why.
Alaska looks to cut greenhouse gas intensity for a carbon-smart future
Last year, Alaska installed split scimitar winglets on all eligible 737 aircraft, improving average fuel efficiency by over 34,000 gallons per plane each year. That adds up to around 4.5 million gallons of fuel annually—enough to power all of the airline’s Anchorage flights for an entire month. Upgrades to navigational technology saved another 1.2 million gallons of fuel in 2017, according to the airline’s most recent sustainability report.
By 2020, the airline hopes to decrease mainline emissions by 17 percent per revenue ton mile—an industry metric that calculates weight transported and miles traveled—compared to a 2009 baseline. But after its fleet expanded thanks to a merger with Virgin America, Alaska’s overall emissions intensity essentially flatlined over the past year. More broadly, the airline’s leadership appears to recognize that fuel efficiency measures will only go so far. In order to keep pace with the level of ambition needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change, the aviation sector will need to fundamentally rethink how it does business—namely by embracing renewable jet fuels.
At present, sustainable aviation biofuel is the only viable replacement for fossil jet fuel in commercial aviation. In 2016, Alaska became the world’s first airline to fly two commercial flights using a biofuel made from the stumps and branches left over after timber harvests. Last month, it joined forces with one of the world’s largest producers of such fuels in an attempt to accelerate the adoption of renewable alternatives across the sector.
Based in Helsinki, Finland, Neste produces aviation biofuels that airlines can adopt without installing new jet engines or fuel distribution systems. Its new partnership with Alaska will help the companies work more closely together to deploy the proven fuel. “We are forerunners in the area of renewable fuels: Neste as a producer, and Alaska as a pioneer in the testing of renewable jet fuel on commercial flights,” Kaisa Hietala, executive vice president of renewable products for Neste, said in a statement. “By working together, we will find the best solutions.”
The global aviation industry is targeting a 50 percent reduction in net emissions by 2050, relative to 2005 levels, and partnerships like these may very well prove essential in meeting those goals. “This collaboration is another major step toward supporting the health of our communities and ecosystems,” Kirk Myers, sustainability director for Alaska, said in a statement.
Everyday changes trim impact down to size
In addition to industry-leading moves toward fuel efficiency and the adoption of renewable fuels, Alaska is leveraging small, incremental changes to lighten its broader footprint even further.
The airline stopped serving non-recyclable plastic straws and citrus picks in July of this year—instead opting for wood and bamboo alternatives at its airport lounges and on flights. The move to cut out the roughly 22 million straws and picks it distributes each year is part of Alaska’s overall goal to reduce inflight waste-to-landfill by 70 percent per passenger by 2020.
The company has already more than halved inflight waste-to-landfill since it began auditing its efforts in 2010—thanks to the most comprehensive inflight recycling program of any U.S airline, which collects nearly 2,000 tons of recyclables each year.
The company also eliminated more than 23 million sheets of paper by focusing on digital solutions, such as tablets for flight attendants and pilots to replace manuals and announcement books. “We care about running a great airline and making a positive impact on the places and people we serve,” Myers said. “When we’re at our best, we do so in ways that strengthen our business and accelerate our growth.”
The bottom line
Even if all countries fulfilled their commitments under the Paris climate agreement, there is still a “very high likelihood” that global temperatures will rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by mid-century, putting us on a collision course with some of the most serious impacts of climate change, according to the IPCC report. Averting the crisis is still possible, IPCC researchers noted, but we’ll need all hands on deck—and that certainly includes the private sector. Rankings such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index offer a glimpse into how the world’s largest companies are responding, allowing us to give credit where credit is due and—hopefully—willing others into action.
“Companies that compete for a coveted place in the [Index] challenge themselves to continuously improve their sustainability practices,” Manjit Jus, head of environmental, social and governance (ESG) ratings for RobecoSAM, said in a statement. “We are pleased to see that the number of companies that commit to achieving measurable positive impacts continues to rise.”
Image courtesy of Alaska Airlines