While airlines have made headlines throughout 2020, the stories have been, well, rather depressing. However, buried beneath all that doom and gloom is one piece of good news that flew under the radar. This summer, JetBlue became the first U.S. airline to achieve carbon neutrality on all domestic flights—a program that will continue in perpetuity.
In the times leading up to the pandemic, flight shaming was the talk of the industry thanks, in part, to environmental advocates like Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who famously sailed across the Atlantic to attend the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York rather than board an emission-belching flight. And she had a good reason for making that transportation decision; according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), aviation was responsible for 2.4 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions in 2018. "While this may seem like a relatively small amount, consider that if global commercial aviation were a country in the national CO2 emissions standings, the industry would rank number six in the world between Japan and Germany," wrote EESI in a report.
But given that Thunberg’s transportation method isn’t necessarily reasonable for all travelers, it’s up to the airlines and their passengers to start making changes to lessen the industry’s environmental impact. Such changes have long been a significant focus for JetBlue, which began purchasing carbon offsets in 2008. The carbon neutrality program, however, is a major leap forward.
"We conceived of this idea last year, and it was really just an extension of a lot of the sustainability moves we've already made. We've already had two different carbon-neutral months of flying for our whole system within the past few years," said Sara Bogdan, JetBlue's manager of sustainability and environmental social governance. "Climate change is not going away. And it's something that's of increasing interest to our customers, crewmembers, investors, policymakers. In our field, people want to travel; people love to travel. But what nobody wants are the emissions that come with it."
The airline announced its ambitious carbon-neutrality goal in January 2020 and achieved it in July. It currently buys carbon offsets (a purchasable credit for a reduction in emissions that compensates for emissions created elsewhere) through thoroughly vetted providers to cover all of its domestic flights. Of course, purchasing offsets is quite an expense, which makes it all the more impressive that JetBlue followed through on this plan despite the financial catastrophe caused by the current pandemic.
"I think it would have been really easy to say 'Sorry, things have changed. We're not going to proceed, or we’re delaying,'" Bogdan said, adding that it was something that the company's leaders took very seriously. "Even in our greatest financial crisis, we delivered."
While JetBlue's carbon neutrality milestone is an immense achievement, carbon offsets are just the first step in a much longer process of reducing emissions in the aviation industry.
"If we assume that flying will and ought to continue as an activity, then I would characterize carbon offsetting as an important bridge measure while airlines look for ways of meaningfully reducing those emissions in the first place," said Dr. Simon Pek, assistant professor of sustainability and organization theory at the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business. "In my mind, a key thing to remember is that offsetting doesn't lead to an overall reduction in carbon emissions: the emissions were still emitted, and the offset essentially works to cancel those out."
That's why JetBlue is already working on the next phase of its long-term sustainability strategy; the airline is targeting the direct reduction of its emissions by using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) produced by Neste on its flights from San Francisco International Airport. SAF is a renewable jet fuel whose life cycle—which includes production and use—produces anywhere from 50 to 80 percent fewer emissions than traditional fuel. In the case of Neste's SAF, the fuel is made from animal waste residue and outputs 80 percent fewer emissions than conventional jet fuel.
"Lower-carbon jet fuel is viewed by many as the largest potential source of in-sector carbon reduction for aviation," explained Adam Klauber, a senior technical advisor at the environmental nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute who leads the sustainable aviation team.
So why isn’t it more widely implemented in the industry? Even though SAF can be used in all aircraft without needing any systems upgrades, making a complete rollout theoretically straightforward, it's simply a matter of money and resources. SAF is more expensive than regular fuel, and it’s not yet produced in high enough quantities to sustain the aviation industry at large. Even if JetBlue purchased all the SAF available today, Bogdan notes, it would only cover a small percentage of the airline’s flights. "Given the high competition dynamic and low margins, airlines can't shoulder this SAF cost burden by themselves," Klauber added.
Help would ideally come from policymakers. "The way our industry thinks that this can be addressed is through helpful policy measures that help stimulate the SAF market," said Bogdan. This could come in the form of SAF-specific subsidies, which she suggests would solve the issue of supply since airlines will be increasing demand. So, in a nutshell: Until there are broader investments and policy changes in the SAF industry, we'll have to take what SAF implementation we can get.
While SAF is a crucial step in aviation sustainability, the planes themselves will need to be engineered to be more environmentally friendly. JetBlue is carefully monitoring aircraft developments in this field; the airline has already invested in more fuel-efficient planes like the Airbus A220, which provides up to a 40 percent improvement on fuel usage. (Of course, more fuel-efficient planes are not only good for the environment but also for airlines' operating costs.) Eventually, JetBlue would love to bolster its fleet with zero-emission aircraft—a once-unimaginable concept that is approaching reality. For instance, Airbus is developing a zero-emission plane that it hopes to deliver by 2035, while JetBlue itself is investing in emissions-reducing aviation technology, including an all-electric vertical take-off and landing passenger craft by Joby Aviation, through its JetBlue Technology Ventures subsidiary. But until that technology becomes readily available to airlines to use commercially, it’s all about taking the right steps toward a more sustainable future in aviation.
"As consumers, we should keep asking ourselves whether those flights we plan to take are necessary, and if so, choose airlines that are making real efforts around climate change," said Dr. Pek. JetBlue certainly fits the bill.
Main Photo: Courtesy of JetBlue; Illustration: TripSavvy / Julie Bang