Decarbonizing the smoke trail: new mission of the United Airlines


smoke trail

Airlines, one of the hardest hit sectors by the pandemic, anticipate man-conceived headwinds when they finally get back to normal business in the post-pandemic world.

The airline sector feels that they will have to come up with long-term strategies to reduce greenhouse gases at their sources – the engines that spew thousands of tons of carbon dioxide, in this case.

This is a sector that lost almost 75% of its passenger numbers due to the pandemic and on a soul searching mission to get back into business to stay viable, with an estimated loss of over $300 billion – according to the ICAO – International Civil Aviation Organization.

Although most of the major airlines will survive, thanks to the backing by national governments, lots of regional airlines across the world have gone bust, not being that lucky.

The aviation sector is one of the first five man-made greenhouse gas emitters, according to the IEA, International Energy Agency, being responsible for 3.5% of the man-made greenhouse gases.

Despite the absence of an alternative to go from point A to point B on the planet covering a long distance, the airlines collectively feel that they will still be subjected to intense pressure for not doing enough to reduce its share of the emissions, when they begin to come out of the tunnel of pandemic-suffering – finally.

People, however, including the die-hard climate tsars, still have to travel by air and the combination of batteries powered by solar energy and fuel by biofuels providing a feasible alternative is still a few decades away; perhaps, it may never be a reality at all.

In May last year, for instance, a battery-powered Cessna managed to fly for 30 minutes without a drop of fossil fuel, something that the head of the company hailed as the ‘watershed moment’ in modern aviation.

It did make history, indeed. However, the scaling up the feat to fit for all sorts of passenger or cargo aircrafts is much more challenging than taking off a 14-seater plane with just the pilot on board, that needs charging at intervals of every half an hour.

Yet, airlines will not be spared by those who are determined to make the former to do their bit to bring down their share of emission from the upper atmosphere.

That means the airlines will be compelled to board the bandwagon of carbon capture and storage; some are already taking steps in that direction.

In an article published in Medium, for example, Scott Kirby, the new CEO of the American Airlines, spelled out his grand vision, December, last year: “We’re embracing a new goal to be 100% green by 2050 by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions 100%,” said Mr Kirby, adding, “and we’ll get there not with flashy, empty gestures, but by taking the harder, better path of actually reducing the emissions from flying.”

Mr Kirby does not think that tree planting is going to address the issue of carbon emissions that has gone up by 4000 times since the Industrial Revolution.

Instead, he wants to focus on switching to SAF, Sustainable Aviation Fuel, emissions of which are 80% less than those of conventional jet fuel and of course, carbon capture and sequestration.

With the second goal in mind, the United Airlines has invested in iPointFive, a joint venture that is going to deploy a large scale plant to capture carbon dioxide directly from air; 1.5 degree Celsius is what UN experts think that the temperature should go up by, on average in order to keep the global warming at bay.

Mr Kirby wants to be the good shepherd by setting an example so that the other airlines will toe the line.

How the other airlines are going to add this to the list of priorities, especially at a time,  reeling from a once-in-a-century pandemic, something that remains to be seen.






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