The worst of the pandemic may be over for airlines, but the industry faces another looming crisis: an accounting over its contribution to climate change.
The industry is under increasing pressure to reduce and eventually eliminate emissions from travel, but it won’t be easy. Some solutions, like hydrogen fuel cells, are promising, but it’s unclear when they will be available, if ever. That leaves companies with few options: They can make tweaks to squeeze out efficiencies, wait for technology to improve, or invest today to help make viable options for the future.
Experts say commercial air travel accounts for about 3 to 4 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. And while planes become more efficient with each new model, the growing demand for flights is outpacing those advancements. The United Nations expects airplane carbon dioxide emissions, a significant greenhouse gas, to triple by 2050. Researchers at the International Council on Clean Transportation say emissions may grow even faster.
Before the pandemic, a “flying shame” movement aimed to discourage air travel in favor of greener options like rail was gaining ground globally, thanks to Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist. There were early signs that it may have reduced air travel in Germany and Sweden. Now French lawmakers are considering a ban on short flights that can be replaced by train travel.
Investors are pushing businesses to disclose more about their efforts to lobby lawmakers on climate issues, too. And some large corporations, whose employees crisscross the globe and fill plush business class seats, are reviewing travel budgets to reduce expenses and emissions.
The urgency isn’t lost on the industry. Scott Kirby, the chief executive of United Airlines, often speaks about the need to address climate change, but even he acknowledges that it will be difficult for the industry to clean up its act. He wants United and other airlines to try different things and see what works.
“It is the biggest long-term issue that our generation faces. It is the biggest risk to the globe,” Mr. Kirby said in a recent interview. “There are plenty of things we can compete on, but we all ought to be trying to make a difference on climate change.”
There are efforts to electrify small planes for short flights — including one backed by United — but doing the same for longer, more significant flights will be challenging, maybe impossible. Commercial planes like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A320, which can carry a few hundred passengers, require an immense amount of energy to reach cruising altitude — more power than modern batteries can efficiently supply.
Someday, hydrogen fuel cells and synthetic jet fuel could help decarbonize the industry. Pilot projects have already begun, mainly in Europe, where Airbus plans to build a zero-emission aircraft by 2035. Boeing has emphasized developing more fuel-efficient planes and is committed to ensuring that all of its commercial planes can fly exclusively on “sustainable” jet fuel made from waste, plants, and other organic matter.