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Delta Airlines’ Claim Of Becoming Carbon Neutral In March Is Disingenuous At Best

The Delta CEO said that the company isn’t going to decarbonize, it isn’t going to buy offsets, and they are going to spend about $100 million a year moving chairs around on the deck of the Hindenburg.

On Valentines Day 2020, the CEO of Delta Airlines made headlines when he made the bold statement on a pre-market opening TV show that Delta Airlines will be fully carbon neutral starting in March of this year. But let’s parse this and find out if this pig flies.

Proposed composed electric jet for comparison

Proposed modern electric turbine composite jet image courtesy of NASA

What specifically did they announce?

CEO Ed Bastian told CNBC on Friday the company is going “fully carbon neutral” starting March 1. “It’s a big challenge and it’s a big commitment,” Bastian said on “Squawk Box.”

Delta is committing at least $1 billion over the next decade to reduce environmental impact, focusing on clean technological investments for engines and carbon removal, he added.

“We will continue to use jet fuel for as far as the eye can see,” Bastian said. “We’ll be investing in technologies to reduce the impact of jet fuel, But I don’t ever see a future where we’ll eliminate jet fuel from our footprint. Carbon offsets are not the solution, we need to be investing in projects that make a difference,” he said. “That’s not really helping our planet.”

That looks, superficially, like an amazing announcement. First off, the company is asserting that they will be carbon neutral in March, but they’re really announcing that they are going to spend a bit of money on a decarbonization program.

Why do I say “a bit of money?” After all, that’s a billion dollars. But what is Delta’s annual revenue? $44 billion. And how many years are they going to spread that billion over? 10. So they are really talking about about 0.2% of their annual revenue. It sounds a lot less impressive that way, doesn’t it?

And their commitments are head scratching. Maybe it was just that they have an incompetent CEO who shouldn’t be allowed to make announcements in public, but let’s look at the words that came out of his mouth.

“We will continue to use jet fuel.”

That’s not biofuels, synthetic fuels or hydrogen, that’s kerosene from petroleum. Yes, they are committing to getting to carbon neutrality with a tiny percentage of their revenue while continuing to burn fossil fuels, the actual problem.

“clean technological investments for engines”

This sounds a lot like efficiency when combined with continued use of fuel. Their planes will be more efficient at burning the fossil fuels, so they’ll burn 10% less of them per passenger mile. The requirement is 90%+ less per passenger mile, so this isn’t a win, it’s a handwave.

“carbon removal”

What does that mean? It means carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), one presumes in the absence of other data points. The fossil fuel industry loves CCS. They spend even less on it than Delta is spending on its carbon neutral plan, but spend more on PR pretending that the thin fig leaf is actually a full green makeover. I’ve published on all the major CCS technologies and sites globally, and found nothing that has any scale or does anything more than give fossil fuel firms social license to operate.

So Delta is talking to its purveyors of fossil fuels and getting PR tips from them. Not helpful, again.

What else?

“Carbon offsets are not the solution”

I agree with him on this point…if Delta were actually “investing in projects that make a difference,” as he goes on to say. But there is zero evidence that they are. Unless he’s just, once again, incredibly incompetent as a corporate mouthpiece, he didn’t say that they will be carbon neutral by buying offsets immediately and diminishing their offsets as they decarbonize fully.

Instead he said that they aren’t going to decarbonize, they aren’t going to buy offsets, and they are going to spend about $100 million a year moving chairs around on the deck of the Hindenburg. One assumes that the CEO of a $44 billion annual revenue company chose his words carefully, so this is the reasonable reading of the announcement. The alternative is that the CEO is getting grilled for making very poorly constructed statements about a much better policy. I know which way I’m betting.

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Written By

is a member of the Advisory Boards of electric aviation startup FLIMAX, Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy and co-founder of distnc technologies. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. His leadership positions in North America, Asia and Latin America enhanced his global point of view. He publishes regularly in multiple outlets on innovation, business, technology and policy. He is available for Board, strategy advisor and speaking engagements.


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