When Greta Thunberg turned the spotlight on the transportation industry's emissions, the public was quick to decry airlines for their carbon footprint. But airlines have long been working on reducing their environmental impact—JetBlue, for instance, went carbon neutral earlier this year. The latest development in the aviation industry's push toward sustainability is United's pledge to go 100 percent green by 2050, and it plans to do so without purchasing carbon offsets.
Purchasing offsets is one of the fastest paths to carbon neutrality—companies determine their carbon footprint, then buy credits through clean energy companies to compensate for it. (In fact, you can do this as an individual traveler, too.) While helpful, it's more of a stopgap than a solution.
That's why United will be investing in programs that play the long game, including a "revolutionary atmospheric carbon capture technology known as Direct Air Capture." With Direct Air Capture, machines collect vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the air to be stored underground, where the gas eventually undergoes mineralization to turn to rock.
United is also investing in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which produces far fewer carbon emissions during its lifecycle than standard jet fuel—up to 80 percent less. United has been using SAF since 2016 and is currently the U.S. airline with the most publicly announced purchase commitments to the fuel.
"These game-changing technologies will significantly reduce our emissions, and measurably reduce the speed of climate change—because buying carbon offsets alone is just not enough," Scott Kirby, United's chief executive officer, said in a statement. "Perhaps most importantly, we're not just doing it to meet our own sustainability goal; we're doing it to drive the positive change our entire industry requires so that every airline can eventually join us and do the same."