The Best Option for Airlines to Shrink Their Carbon Footprint

The airline industry has committed to curbing emissions growth
to zero by the end of 2020. That’s no small task. Emissions from
the sector are rising rapidly.

The International Civil Aviation Organization anticipates that
in 2020, global international aviation emissions will be 70 percent
greater than in 2005. Last year flights worldwide produced
895 million
tons of CO2
in total. And despite impressive improvements
in the efficiency of new aircraft and the progress in certifying
new types of renewable jet fuels (five thus far), the aviation
sector burns 10 billion more gallons of polluting conventional jet
fuel per year than it did a decade ago. 

To hit their goal of zero emissions growth, airline executives
will need to take unprecedented action; they won’t be able to
find enough efficiency measures to curb growth to zero. Renewable
jet fuels also are not yet available at scale or at the right
price. And unlike ground transport, only short-haul jet flights
make sense to electrify in the foreseeable future. 

So how, then, can they do it? One answer is for executives to
offset their airlines’ emissions through
carbon mitigation and sequestration projects
.

Offsets? Really?

While offsets are often seen as a cop-out for industries that
don’t want to tackle their own pollution, airlines are clearly
uniquely limited in their pollution mitigation options. Airlines
can eliminate
the skepticism and criticism associated with offsets
of
questionable merit and even more questionable verification by
investing in projects right in the communities where their
customers and employees live and work. Not only will these projects
be visible to airline critics, but they will also directly benefit
the people who matter most to airlines. 

While there are a number of ways that airlines can offset their
emissions, the lowest-cost option right now is to invest in local
farmers. Airlines can pay farmers to effectively absorb airlines’
carbon emissions back into their land through regenerative farming
practices. 

Soil itself can hold immense amounts of carbon and is capable of
absorbing — through sequestration — more carbon than either
oceans or forests. According to
the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization
, for
example, it’s estimated that agricultural soils have the
potential to “sequester more than 60 times the emissions
generated by the aviation sector in 2018.” 

In addition to airlines, many large corporations have been
making bold climate commitments. Many corporations have committed
to 100 percent
renewable electricity
, energy
productivity
,
 net-zero
waste
 and have signed up to electrify their vehicles. But
air travel remains an essential part of international business.
Offsetting those emissions through direct investments into local
farms and communities would unlock a multitude of benefits. 

It’s estimated that over the last few centuries, at least 50
percent of the earth’s soil carbon has been released into the
atmosphere. Yet by restoring carbon-rich organic matter in soils,
evidence
suggests
that regenerative agricultural practices
(including the use of cover crops and compost) can render farms
more resilient to the effects of climate change, thus reducing the
damage caused by the ravages of climate change and helping to
safeguard our food supply. In the case of farms that grow food and
energy crops, they could also be enhancing the productivity for
renewable jet fuel supplies.

Soils rich in organic matter are able to infiltrate and hold
more water, reducing the costs and risks of both flooding and
drought. Healthier soils can result in healthier crops and
ultimately healthier people. And healthier crops can lead to more
viable farms — which, of course, increases food security and can
improve the livelihoods of farmers and rural communities
broadly. 

In fact, we’re already seeing this play out. Farms where
regenerative practices are employed are seeing soil carbon
levels rise
, sometimes
dramatically
.

A lack of available alternatives

Airline executives should be persuaded to invest in carbon
sequestration due to the emissions-reduction potential alone. But
in addition to providing an effective means of hitting their goal
of zero emissions growth starting in 2020, partnering with farmers
on carbon sequestration also promises airline execs a boost to
their public image. They’d be combating climate change, living up
to their promises and helping farmers and communities across the
world. 

Who doesn’t love that story? 

Airlines are often cited as one
of the most intensely disliked industries
in the world. The
new social phenomenon of “flight-shaming” is already reducing
airline business in Scandinavia and could catch on in other parts
of the world. So emerging as a key player in the fight against
climate change — as well as a champion of the farming community
— could help airlines maintain their social license to
operate.

In an ideal world, we would have a national climate policy and a
national marketplace for these carbon offsets that airlines could
buy into. 

But in the meantime, it’s incumbent on airlines — should
they intend to honor their commitment to zero emissions growth —
to act on their own and form these partnerships independently. In
sending the signal that they are interested in impactful
offsetting, airlines can also help drive improvements to existing
offsetting frameworks or support the development of new ones, in
order to provide the rigor and transparency that can enhance public
trust.

The best way to start is by partnering directly with farmers in
the regions airlines serve. 

More specifically, airlines should focus their partnerships
around carbon sequestration through soil restoration, and they
should start in states where they have hubs — where their
employees live and whose communities they directly impact. Doing so
collectively and seriously would go a long way toward benefiting
those communities as well as lowering emissions. 

But helping farmers rehabilitate soil is only one mechanism
available to airlines in this necessarily ongoing effort to reduce
emissions and help the environment. They could also invest in
projects to clean up the air and improve environmental quality
around airports, for example, or pay for solar panels and batteries
for their employees’ homes, which would essentially create
distributed power plants around the world.

By planting trees in parks and installing solar panels over
airport parking lots, airline execs could simultaneously improve
air quality, enhance customer and employee satisfaction,
rehabilitate their public image, enhance food security and reduce
their emissions all at the same time. 

All of this progress should start, though, with carbon
sequestration partnerships between airlines and farmers.
Considering the lack of available alternatives, airline executives
would be wise to get moving on this now. 2020 is right around the
corner.

****

Suzanne Hunt is president of Hunt Green. Jigar Shah is
co-founder and president at Generate Capital.

Source: FS – GreenTech Media
The Best Option for Airlines to Shrink Their Carbon Footprint