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Tina Casey headshot

A Closer Look at Delta Air Lines’ Carbon Neutrality Plan

By Tina Casey
Delta Airlines

Proving that the emerging wave of ramped-up corporate climate action has legs, last week Delta Air Lines announced an ambitious, $1 billion plan to achieve carbon neutral status within 10 years. The move follows similar announcements by other global firms, which are calling for sharply reducing their carbon emissions instead of merely offsetting them.

From carbon offsets to sustainable energy

Not too long ago, business leaders leaned on carbon offsets to push their companies in a more sustainable direction.

Now they are beginning to recognize that offsetting is ineffective without an overall decrease in their global carbon load as well.

That means using less energy and transitioning to more sustainable fuels, while also increasing the use of offsets to remove atmospheric carbon beyond the carbon emissions related directly to a company’s operations.

Ten years ago, such a strategy would have been technologically challenging, if not impossible.

With today’s advanced sustainable energy technology, business leaders can bank on the financial viability of carbon reduction.

Carbon removal is still a technological challenge, but as the Delta plan illustrates, nature could come to the rescue.

Delta targets carbon neutrality, hits fossil fuels

Like other airlines, Delta faces an especially daunting task on the road to carbon neutrality.

Ground-based transportation companies can use electric vehicles, biofuels and renewable hydrogen to decarbonize. They can also deploy mass transit, car sharing, bicycles and other alternatives. None of these options is widely available to aircraft.

However, since 98 percent of its emissions are related to its aircraft, Delta does have the advantage of achieving significant results by focusing its carbon-reducing efforts on the aircraft themselves.

To that end, the new plans call for increasing fuel efficiency as well ramping up the company’s support for sustainable fuel research and development efforts.

Delta will officially launch its new plan on March 1, and it already has a head start.

Last year Delta made progress on an existing pledge to replace older aircraft with ones that are 25 percent more fuel efficient, with the addition of 80 new planes.

The company has also broadened its search for alternative fuels to include an experimental facility that recycles waste plastic into jet fuel.

Last December, Delta committed to purchasing 10 million gallons of biofuel annually from the firm Gevo. That company has been working to shrink the carbon footprint of biofuel production through crop selection, energy efficiency and renewable energy. 

Delta also engaged with the biofuel company Northwest Advanced Bio-Fuels on a $2 million R&D program aimed at using wood debris from managed forests as a biofuel feedstock.

The Northwest R&D project could soon be joined by others, as Delta’s new 10-year plan includes a new investment fund dedicated to supporting its carbon neutral goals.

No good news for oil and gas stakeholders

The agreement with Northwest should raise another red flag for the fossil fuel industry.

There has been quite a bit of buzz lately about the prospects for removing a significant amount of atmospheric carbon by planting trees on a massive scale.

In essence, that strategy will raise a new generation of managed forests all over the globe.

This super-sized approach to tree-planting could have the unintended side effect of providing cover for oil and gas stakeholders, which have begun to articulate plans for achieving carbon neutral status while continuing to dig fossil fuels out of the ground.

However, over the long term the new swaths of managed forest could emerge as a competitive threat to fossil fuels.

These new forests could provide vast quantities of bio-based material to replace fossil fuels and other petrochemicals, presumably without running into the environmental issues that restrict harvesting wood from old growth forests.

Wood is more difficult to break down into chemical building blocks than other plant-based materials, so technological obstacles still remain.

Nevertheless, new biorefinery research underscores how the Delta-Northwest partnership could support new, cost-effective systems for using wood as a sustainable feedstock.

Trees versus technology

To that point, Delta’s new 10-year plan supports the emerging consensus that tree-planting is a more cost-effective carbon removal and sequestration pathway than human-built systems. For that matter, evidence is emerging that conventional carbon capture systems may do more harm than good.

Tree planting initiatives are not a free ride, as seedlings and saplings require regular care. However, Mastercard and other companies have already begun partnering with forestry and wildlife experts to set the bar for effective action.

Similarly, Delta’s 10-year plan includes a commitment to share its best practices with other organizations.

If all goes according to plan, those projects will include wetland restoration, grassland conservation, and marine and soil capture in addition to forestry and other “negative emission” pathways.

Image credit: Miguel Ángel Sanz/Unsplash and Delta Air Lines

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey