The Only Way to Achieve Carbon-Neutral Flight, According to an Airline

There aren’t many good ideas about how to solve the climate problem of aviation.

a plane flying through a cloudy sky

© Florian Gaertner / Getty

Or, well, let me rephrase that: There are a lot of ideas. Some companies argue that business commuters of the 2040s will take short hops, such as from D.C., to Philly, on six-seater electric vehicles that take off and land vertically. But these vehicles—sometimes felicitously called “flying cars,” though their formal name is VTOL, for “vertical takeoff and landing”—can go only so far, and the most successful VTOL prototypes have barely gotten off the ground. For medium distances, such as from New York to Cleveland, Airbus says it is trying to develop a zero-emissions jet that uses hydrogen as its main fuel source.


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But for long-haul flights? “There’s nothing on the drawing board,” Scott Kirby, the chief executive of United Airlines, told me yesterday. You could try to make liquid fuels out of plant matter, but that would gobble up an enormous amount of land. Or you could look at the recent progress in technology that captures carbon pollution directly from the air and say,Why don’t we just do that?” Why can’t planes stay on fossil fuels forever (or at least indefinitely) and pay to clean up the climate damage immediately?

Last week, United announced that it’s going down that compelling but fraught path. Its decision, which I talked with Kirby about, points to how far carbon capture has come in the past few years—but also how far it still has to go.

A quick refresher: Flying is a tough one, climate-wise, to say the least. Planes burn jet fuel, of course, which releases carbon pollution. But they also disturb the atmosphere, depositing pollutants and forming heat-trapping cirrus clouds at high altitudes. This means that planes cause more global warming than their greenhouse-gas emissions would strictly predict: Aviation accounts for about 3.5 percent of the warming in any year, even though it makes up a smaller share (about 2.5 percent) of the carbon pollution.

These numbers cannot really be contextualized in a noncontroversial way. Flying’s share of global emissions is significantly below that of cars and trucks—both in the United States and abroad, SUVs are a bigger climate problem than planes—but flying is also hyperconcentrated, both logistically and socially. That is, a single flight is much dirtier than a single SUV ride, and rich people take the most flights. As the world gets more prosperous, experts assume that flying will become a bigger problem. The International Civil Aviation Organization says that carbon pollution from flying could more than triple by 2050.

That’s an important year—it’s the deadline by which, last week, United pledged to go “100 percent green.” (For reference: 2050 is a few months closer to now than the year 1990 is.) One hundred percent green, in Kirby’s argot, means carbon neutrality with a twist. Under “normal” carbon neutrality, a company or country would pledge to remove at least as much carbon as it emits into the atmosphere, usually by planting trees or tending to other forms of biomass. But United is committing to remove all of its carbon permanently using direct-air-capture technology.

At the same time, the airline announced that it would make a multimillion-dollar investment in a new direct-air-capture facility being built in Texas. That plant, called 1PointFive, is a joint venture of Occidental Petroleum and Rusheen Capital Management, a private-equity firm. (United didn’t disclose the size of the investment.)

United is the first airline to commit to going carbon neutral by using carbon removal. It’s also the first airline, as far as I’m aware, to invest in carbon-capture technology. That milestone alone is remarkable.

United’s pledge also illustrates the strange position of carbon-removal technology today. Because in the short term, United is not committing itself to any specifics. It’s provided no glide path to its net-zero goal: We don’t know when it will try to halve its emissions, or even start cutting them; we only know it has promised to be net zero by 2050. And unlike the online-payments company Stripe, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, United hasn’t promised to buy any carbon removal yet. It is an investor in the Texas plant, not a purchaser: It is not paying to put carbon into the ground.

Kirby is relatively new to the CEO role at United. A graduate of the Air Force Academy, he has worked in commercial aviation for more than a quarter century. He is plainly excited that carbon capture is potentially feasible enough, as a technology, to be a serious option for large companies to reach carbon neutrality—and he is excoriating about the value of carbon offsets that trade in planting trees. Offsets “do almost nothing to tackle the emissions from flying,” he said last week.  

“My challenge is, I’m good at math,” he told me yesterday. “I can do the math; it doesn’t add up. There’s no way you get to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius [of global warming] without some radical breakthrough that no one has even contemplated yet for carbon capture and sequestration.”

Yet the math of carbon removal is also difficult. Using today’s technology, it costs about $800 to remove a ton of CO₂ permanently. United’s planes emit about 34 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to the company’s climate-risk disclosures. Removing that much carbon would cost about $27 billion a year, roughly equal to United’s gross profits last year.

But it’s unclear whether the Texas plant will actually remove carbon on net at all. The 1PointFive facility uses the carbon it captures for an industrial purpose. It is an “enhanced oil recovery” facility, meaning it pumps CO2 underground to make it easier to drill for oil. It is partly owned, remember, by Occidental Petroleum—an oil company.

Gallery: How BP is preparing for the energy transition (Houston Chronicle)

BP earlier this year became the first oil major to set a net-zero carbon emissions target by 2050 and acknowledged that to reach that lofty goal, it will have to produce less oil and natural gas in the coming decades.

“That’s the only way you can do” it, Kirby said. “Without government support, that’s the only project I’m aware of that will have any ability economically to get done.” To this end, United will lobby Congress for further support for carbon capture, Kirby said.

With the current economics of carbon capture, he said, enhanced oil recovery (EOR) is a necessity. And he added that the oil would likely come out of the ground anyway, because the facility sits in the middle of an active Occidental oil field in Texas. Occidental is “pumping regardless out there in the Permian,” he said. “At the worst case, it’s one to one. Every carbon atom you pump, it gets permanently stored back in the ground.”

It is unclear whether the math of EOR is so clean. Some estimates have said that, over time, carbon-removal-to-EOR plants could actually increase the amount of carbon burned worldwide. Under a tax credit passed during the Trump administration, the U.S. government pays $35 for each ton of sequestered CO₂ used to drill for oil.

United is encouraging other airlines and its frequent-flying corporate clients to join it in creating a carbon-capture fund. Since the announcement last week, Kirby said he’s “heard from other airline CEOs around the world—exclusively, so far, in other countries, sadly.” But no one else has joined the notional fund.

And here is the puzzle of carbon removal today. It’s astonishing that any Fortune 100 company is making an investment in carbon capture. Even five years ago, it was seen as a largely notional technology. Now its costs have started to decline, and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that it is scientifically essential.

Experts know that carbon capture must do what wind and solar have done: It must get cheap. And the point of United’s investment, Kirby said, is to help make it cheaper, so it can be a choice for any airline. “This is, to me, the way to drive the costs down so that, you know, much like what happened with wind and solar, it becomes competitive as a way to take carbon out of the atmosphere,” he said. “At that point … you can have projects that have no other economic benefits other than taking carbon out of the atmosphere.”

But in the short term, United is not paying to suck any carbon out of the air, and it may be making it cheaper to burn fossil fuels more generally. It is pushing for more federal support for carbon removal, but also investing in an oil-drilling project.

So this could signal a landmark change in how we think about air travel and climate change, or it could amount to another corporate climate promise where the math never actually works out. I’m hoping for the former—but I’d love to see more math.

Look at This

map: McKinsey & Company

© Provided by The Atlantic
McKinsey & Company

By 2030, much of the country could face an increased number of “lethally hot days,” very humid days above 93 degrees Fahrenheit when spending more than four hours outside at a time can be deadly, the consulting group McKinsey warned in a new report published today and provided exclusively to The Weekly Planet.

While parts of Texas and South Florida could face more than 20 such days a year by 2050, the report said, the hot days are likely to be more damaging in northern cities that aren’t prepared for emergency heat.

“This is hyperlocal. While there’s a lot of attention at the national level, there’s a lot that needs to happen at the local level,” Dickon Pinner, an author of the report and the leader of McKinsey’s sustainability practice, told me.

One interesting note about McKinsey’s climate reports: They use a worst-case climate scenario, called “RCP 8.5,” when calculating future climate impacts. Though there’s some debate among energy scholars about whether this scenario is accurate, Pinner prefers it because it is “a statement of the inherent risk—the unabated, unadapted scenario.”

“As a decision maker, it’s a reality that you need to look at, because it’s the path, historically, that we’ve been on,” he said. It’s also relatively unavoidable in this century: Even if we reduce our emissions somewhat, Pinner said, we’ll see the worst-case scenario by 2070 or 2080.

Three Brief Things

1. I don’t think the American conversation has kept track of how quickly climate action has moved. Last week, the European Union announced that it would cut carbon pollution 55 percent by 2030, holding itself to a stricter climate target than previously announced. It did so after several days of nonstop negotiations over the Continent’s $2.1 trillion coronavirus-relief package, which had been blocked for months by the objections of the more carbon-intensive (and rule-of-law-skeptical) Poland and Hungary. But the relief bill—and the climate target—went through.

2. Ford’s new electric Mustang crossover—the company’s “first real electric car”—is getting quite positive reviews.

3. Some reasonably good news: If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, the days will start getting longer by the time you receive the next edition of this newsletter. (Alas, to the reader in New Zealand who emailed me last week: I’m afraid I have some reasonably bad news.)

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