The boss of the world’s second biggest airline has said that tackling climate change will make flying more expensive.
“It will cost us all more in the long run, but it is the right approach that we must take,” Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told the BBC.
According to the International Energy Agency, aviation is responsible for approximately 2.5 percent of the carbon emissions that are warming the planet.
According to critics, the best way to reduce them is to fly less.
Delta, based in Atlanta, claims that it has been carbon neutral since March 2020 after spending $30 million (£22.4 million) per year on carbon offsets.
It has also promised to spend $1 billion over the next decade to offset all of its emissions.
It hopes to accomplish this through the use of more fuel-efficient planes, sustainable aviation fuels, and the removal of carbon from the atmosphere.
Carbon emissions reduction is critical if the world is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as agreed in Paris in 2015, and has been the focus of the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow.
Andreas Schafer, professor of energy and transport at University College London, claims that transitioning the global aviation sector to net zero carbon emissions will “cost trillions rather than billions of dollars.”
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According to preliminary findings from his team’s research, airfares would need to rise by 10% to 20% to cover the costs.
“In the short term, government assistance with those costs will be required because decarbonizing aviation will be extremely difficult, and current efforts will need to be dramatically scaled up,” Prof Schafer says.
Mr. Bastian admits that it is an ambitious goal that his airline will be unable to achieve on its own.
“It’s the most significant long-term challenge that this industry faces,” he said. “We’re in an industry that’s been labelled as difficult to decarbonize because we don’t yet have the bio-fuels or sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) in large enough quantities.”
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Delta intends to use 10% sustainable aviation fuel by the end of 2030.
SAFs are being invested in by a number of airlines and fuel companies. Other technologies under development include converting food waste into jet fuel and extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
However, these continue to be more expensive than traditional jet fuels, and the quantities required are also viewed as problematic.
According to the US government, global demand for jet fuel is set to more than double by 2050 .
According to the International Air Transport Association, the number of passenger flights will increase from 4.5 billion in pre-pandemic levels to 10 billion by 2050. (IATA).
IATA Director General Willie Walsh told the BBC that while increasing SAF production levels would be difficult, “it is perfectly possible if industry and governments work together.”
“Increased production will bring the cost down to competitive levels. In recent decades, we’ve seen similar increases in the development of solar and wind power.”
At the UN climate change summit in Glasgow, 23 countries have pledged to work together to get the aviation industry to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. More efficient energy use, sustainable aviation fuels and electric aeroplanes are all part of their ambitions.
Greenpeace, an environmental campaign group, calls the agreement “brazen greenwashing.”
“This announcement is riddled with gimmicks like offsetting and overly optimistic claims about so-called’sustainable aviation fuels’ and future aircraft designs,” says Greenpeace’s Klara Maria Schenk.
“However, it lacks the one thing required to achieve the goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is tangible action to prioritise green travel and reduce flights.”
While many businesses and individuals have used the pandemic to re-evaluate their carbon footprints, Mr Bastian believes that flight numbers will return to pre-pandemic levels.
“All forms of travel are on the way back. Families are the part of the travelling public that we’re most happy to see, because there’s been some really difficult stories over time of families not being able to connect for long [periods]”.
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According to Mr Bastian, business travel is also returning because video meetings cannot replace everything.
“When people get back together in person, there’s a real sense of unity and purpose.”
Delta reported a $194 million profit in the three months ending September 30, its first profit since the pandemic began.
Delta was the world’s second largest airline prior to the pandemic, flying 200 million passengers in 2019. It was operating at 71% of its pre-pandemic capacity as of September.
The recovery in its domestic US market has been fastest, with long-haul routes to Asia the slowest. That echoes the pattern seen in a recent forecast from planemaker Boeing, which forecast a full recovery of global aviation would take until 2024.
Like other airlines, Delta has received billions in government support to get through the pandemic, but is hopeful of a brighter future now the US has reopened its borders to international travellers.
According to Mr. Bastian, this may take some getting used to, and there may be long lines at airports as Covid vaccines and paperwork are checked.
He is optimistic about the airline’s future, however, and sees the pandemic as “an opportunity to invest in our future.”
“We hope to be able to maintain that and go into the new year as a profitable carrier,” he says now that the airline is making money again.
You can watch Ed Bastian’s full interview on “Talking Business with Aaron Heslehurst” this weekend on BBC World News at Saturday 23:30 GMT, Sunday 05:30 and 16:30 GMT and Monday at 08:30 GMT