Delta Air Lines proudly proclaims it is “carbon neutral since March 2020,” but that was only possible in 2021 through the dubious purchase of carbon emission offsets. As Delta has discovered, ambitious climate change goals are proving vexing for airlines and sustainability promises may turn into a troubling liability.
Carbon Emission Goals Prove Elusive For Delta Air Lines, Others
Look down at your cocktail napkin next time you fly Delta and you might see:
“Carbon neutral since March 2020.
Travel confidently knowing that we will offset the carbon emitted on your Delta flight.”
But what does that mean? Delta is certainly trying to reach net zero carbon emissions, but when it fell (far) short of the goal in 2021, it spent $137 million to buy carbon offsets for 27 megatons of carbon.
That’s a big deal, right? Well, when you break it down, that is only $5.04 a ton…which is essentially nothing. I don’t mean to downplay the positive impact $137 million will make, but the whole carbon trading business seems so sketch to me…
Delta does have a problem beyond purchasing carbon offsets. In 2020, it boldly promised it would invest $1 billion to reduce its carbon footprint by 2030 (mostly by purchasing more fuel-efficient planes, which of course still emit carbon). But its virtue-signaling ESG (“environment, social and governance”) commitment may well backfire if people hold it accountable. THat could come in the form of shareholder revolts, lawsuits, or even disciplinary action from the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Sam Lissner, a Managing Director at Ridgewood, a private equity firm that invests in U.S. infrastructure and energy, told The Washington Post:
“A lot of it is marketing and virtue signaling. The reality is it’s very challenging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of particularly a heavy industrial company like an airline or manufacturer without becoming a lot less profitable in the near term.”
And Delta is sensing that. Its new chief sustainability officer, Pam Fletcher, wants to move away from the carbon offset model.
“It was the best tool at the time. So kudos to getting some momentum on climate change. Now we are laser-focused on decarbonization in our company and industry working on the issues within our own four walls.”
To accomplish that goal, Delta plans to:
- electrify ground equipment that transports luggage and pushes planes
- purchase more fuel-efficient planes
- invest in sustainable jet fuels
- collaborate with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to eliminate contrails, which are thought to trap heat and warm the earth
- shift toward carbon capture technology
As always, aspirations are one thing, delivery is quite another…as Delta has already found out.
United Airlines, incidentally, has avoided carbon offsets in favor of carbon capture from the very start of its green overtures. But United will have trouble meeting its ambitious green goals as well.
I focus on Delta today, but the problem is not unique to Delta. Other airlines and corporations may find themselves walking back promises as the act of actually reducing carbon footprint proves to be a lot more difficult than promising to do so.
My conviction is that we better get used to the consequences of warmer temperatures because I do not see the will to actually keep global temperatures from rising (and I am not even sure humanity can stop it). That should not stop us from being good stewards of the resources entrusted to us, though.