United Airlines has ramped up its 2018 pledge to cut its net greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050 by announcing a new ambitious commitment to a 100 per cent reduction by the same year. In an industry first, the US airline says it will meet its carbon neutrality goal through a multimillion-dollar investment in Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology rather than purchasing carbon credits to offset residual emissions. The investment is being made in 1PointFive, a partnership between Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, a subsidiary of Occidental, and Rusheen Capital Management, which is using technology licensed from Carbon Engineering in the first industrial-sized DAC plant in the United States. United has already invested $30 million in sustainable aviation fuel producer Fulcrum BioEnergy, the single largest investment in SAF production by any airline globally.
“As the leader of one of the world’s largest airlines, I recognise our responsibility in contributing to fight climate change, as well as our responsibility to solve it,” said United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby. “These game-changing technologies will significantly reduce our emissions and measurably reduce the speed of climate change – because buying carbon offsets alone is not enough. Perhaps most importantly, we’re not just doing it to meet our own sustainability goal, we’re doing it to drive the positive change our industry requires so that every airline can eventually join us and do the same.”
DAC technology, says the airline, is one of the few proven ways to physically correct for aircraft emissions and can scale to capture millions, and potentially billions, of tonnes of CO2 per year. The first 1PointFive plant is expected to capture and permanently sequester one million tonnes of CO2 each year (currently, the world’s largest DAC facilities have the capacity to capture several thousand tonnes of CO2 per year), the equivalent work of 40 million trees, claims the company, yet covering a land area around 3,000 times smaller.
The captured CO2 will then be stored deep underground in geological formations by Occidental and the process certified by independent third parties. Occidental has been permanently storing CO2 for more than 40 years, with nearly 20 million tonnes sequestered in its operations annually. The company has two US EPA-approved monitoring, reporting and verification plans to validate the integrity, transparency and permanence of the entire sequestration process. Its contribution to the venture includes engineering, project development and other technology performance assistance that will provide support for the development and financing of the DAC plant.
The exact location for the plant has not yet been revealed except that it is in the Texas Permian Basin, with a land footprint of around 100 acres (40 hectares). 1PointFive announced in August that the plant was in the design and development phase with the final front-end engineering design slated to begin in the first quarter of 2021 and construction expected to start in 2022. The company says the venture with Carbon Engineering has been enabled by market policies such as the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard and Federal 45Q tax credit.
“Assessments by major organisations such as the IPCC and the National Academy of Sciences are increasingly clear that to avoid the dangerous impacts of climate change, we will need to remove billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere,” said 1PointFive CEO Jim McDermott. “A global DAC industry will be key to achieving this. It will also bring significant economic benefits, leading to the development of new industries and thousands of jobs.”
United believes sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), with up to 80% less lifecycle carbon emissions than conventional fuel, remains the fastest and most effective way to reduce its emissions. It holds more than 50% of all publicly announced future SAF purchase commitments among airlines globally. Last year, United renewed its contract with World Energy, agreeing to purchase up to 10 million gallons of “cost-competitive” SAF.
The airline has longest history of using SAF in the US and has been powering every flight departing its Los Angeles hub since 2016, carrying 26 million passengers on 215,000 flights powered by a SAF blend. In 2019 it committed $40 million towards an investment initiative focused on accelerating the development of SAF and other decarbonisation technologies. Earlier this month, the Carbon Disclosure Project named United as the only airline globally to its 2020 ‘A List’ for the airline’s actions to cut emissions, mitigate climate risks and help develop the low-carbon economy, marking the seventh consecutive year that United had the highest CDP score among US carriers.
“When I became United Airlines’ new CEO at the beginning of the pandemic, I did so with a grand vision for our company: to make sustainability the new standard in flight,” said Kirby in an open letter on LinkedIn. “I realise it’s an ambitious vision for someone in an industry that depends on burning fossil fuels to operate. As the leader of one of the world’s largest airlines, I recognise our responsibility in contributing to climate change as well as our responsibility to solve it. It’s no longer enough for us to connect the world without making sure it has a future.”
Kirby said traditional carbon offsets did almost nothing to tackle the emissions from flying. “And, more importantly, they simply don’t meet the scale of this global challenge,” he added. “Carbon emissions have increased 4,000 times since the industrial revolution. It’s just not realistic to think we can plant enough trees to start bending that curve today.
“We’re embracing a new goal to be 100% green by 2050 by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions 100%. And we’ll get there not with flashy, empty gestures, but by taking the harder, better path of actually reducing the emissions from flying. I believe the world and the airline industry has to be bolder.”