Last month, Microsoft announced a first-of-its-kind partnership with Alaska Airlines to purchase sustainable aviation fuel. The agreement involves the purchase of credits to be used by Microsoft on Alaska Airlines routes traveled most frequently by the tech giant's employees — namely from Seattle to Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose, respectively. Microsoft said the move to purchase sustainable jet fuel will significantly reduce the carbon dioxide emissions associated with its flight-based business travel.
The fuel credits will be purchased from Amsterdam-based SkyNRG, which makes sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) out of various feedstocks including used cooking oil. SkyNRG's SAF is a blend of waste oils and conventional aviation fuel. Theye Veen, managing director of SkyNRG, said he hopes that the partnership with Microsoft will encourage other large companies to enter similar agreements. Veen went on to assert that SAFs are a “once in a century” opportunity to change the energy source used by an entire industry.
Microsoft responds to an evolving travel industry
As part of the partnership, Microsoft, Alaska Airlines and SkyNRG say they will participate in Clean Skies for Tomorrow. Run by the World Economic Forum, the coalition's goal is to increase the aviation industry’s demand for sustainable jet fuel and educate suppliers on switching from conventional fuel mixes. One advocate of sustainable jet fuel is the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an organization run by the United Nations. The ICAO recently stated that SAFs, along with carbon offsetting, operational improvements and new technological standards are crucial to reducing aviation emissions.
Alaskan Airlines itself is no stranger to sustainable fuels, having tested and advocated their use since 2011. The airline has also recently announced a four-year SAF agreement with Neste, another sustainable fuel refiner. On that point, Neste claims its fuel achieves an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases compared to conventional jet fuel.
To date, approximately 30 airlines have tested sustainable aviation fuels globally. Hence Alaska Airlines' claims that its greenhouse emissions reductions of 16 percent since 2012 make it stand out across the aviation sector. Across the entire aviation industry, emissions rose by 32 percent between 2013 and 2018. Considering that commercial air travel is responsible for 2 to 3 percent of global carbon emissions, much work lies ahead.
A long journey for sustainable jet fuels
If sustainable jet fuels are going to get off the ground, then the issue of volume comes into play, too. The sheer volume of jet fuel required by the industry each year, some 73.7 billion gallons (278 billion liters), is staggering. To replace this or even supplement this with sustainable fuels will require a “mammoth effort” says Joanne Bailey, an industry commentator. Not only that, the debates around fuel versus food crops still rage on. Yet, alternatives that do not compete with food such as algae, do offer some potential. To that end, in 2014 TriplePundit reported on Southwest Airlines' use of forest residue waste biofuel in its aviation fuel, another potential solution.
Carbon negative ambitions at Microsoft
As far as Microsoft is concerned, sustainable fuels are just one part of an ambitious sustainability strategy. Microsoft aims to be carbon negative by 2030, which means it must remove more carbon than it emits. Yet, Microsoft is going a step further, stating that by 2050 it aims to completely eliminate all historical emissions, dating back to the company's founding in 1975, from the company. Aviation is one of the more difficult barriers to these goals, according to Judson Althoff, Executive Vice President of Microsoft’s Worldwide Commercial Business. Yet, he asserted that the new sustainable fuel agreement will help Microsoft get ahead of any possible large scale return to flying after business travel rebounds from the ongoing COVID-19 shutdowns.
Business travel post COVID-19
Althoff’s comments highlight a salient point amid COVID-19 shutdowns. The future of work, how we travel there, and if we go at all, have never been more relevant. Microsoft itself is leading the charge for home working, having introduced a “hybrid-workplace” plan to encourage home working last month. Google is doing the same. However, only time will tell if workers return in their droves to the flight check in desk. If they do, at least at Microsoft they will be doing it more sustainably.
Image credits: Alaska Airlines Newsroom
James has been writing about investing and sustainable finance and development for over ten years. With a background in sustainability consulting, his book 'Green your business now', was used as the basis for a sustainable business accreditation scheme in the U.K. He also helped PepsiCo with branding and investment strategy for its Tropicana product line as part of its Performance with Purpose agenda. His views on sustainable development and responsible investing have been featured in Morningstar magazine and the UKs Urban Design Journal, an organization that promotes sustainable development. He has an active interest in ESG having written for ESG investor platform Curation, where he helped curate content used in environmental risk briefings for FTSE100 companies. Topics James has covered include governance issues, renewable energy adoption, accessible design, sustainability reporting and climate related financial risk disclosures.