Chemical & Engineering News: Airlines Want to Make Flight More Sustainable. How Will They Do It?

September 3, 2021

Air travel produces about 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions, and it is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gases, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). “The least-emitting flight is one that doesn’t happen at all,” says Nikita Pavlenko, senior fuels researcher for the ICCT. This advice is not practical for people who need to travel long distances or for the airline industry. But climate scientists say that to get climate change under control, airlines need to reduce their emissions.

Multiple airline companies have announced programs to try to become more sustainable in the coming years. Delta Air Lines recently committed $1 billion to become carbon neutral by 2030. JetBlue pledged to get there by 2040, and United Airlines by 2050. Many other global airlines around the world have made similar promises.

But making air travel more sustainable is not simple. It takes a lot of energy to lift people and cargo into the air and carry them long distances. Airlines are trying to reduce their emissions in several ways. Probably the most common is switching from traditional fossil-derived jet fuels to ones that are made from renewable sources and have lower emissions during production. Airlines are also looking to new materials and coating technologies to make planes lighter, more aerodynamic, and more resistant to wear and tear. Meanwhile, a few airlines, such as United, think they can get to carbon neutrality while reintroducing supersonic flight.