Delta Air Lines presents its plan to leave fossil fuels behind

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Delta Air Lines has drawn up a new plan to de-fossil fuel its planes in an effort to address climate change. The goal, the airline says, is for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to account for at least 95 percent of fuel consumption by 2050.

SAF is made from waste or crops through a process that should eliminate much of the greenhouse gas emissions an aircraft produces. It is not a perfect system and can create new environmental problems. And with very little SAF produced today, it will be a tough climb for Delta to meet its 2050 target. Nevertheless, SAF is largely seen by the industry as the most viable alternative to fossil fuels today.

With very little SAF produced today, it will be a tough climb for Delta to meet its 2050 target

SAF is a biofuel made from plant or animal material. An airplane running on SAF will still produce carbon dioxide emissions that warm the planet, but the goal is to eliminate much of that pollution in how the fuel is produced. If it’s made from plants like corn or soy, the climate benefit should come from photosynthesis. The plants absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, which should remove some of the pollution that comes from burning fuel. When SAF is made with food waste or other organic material in the trash, the climate benefit should come from avoiding the greenhouse gas emissions that would have resulted from that food or waste ending up in landfills.

Airlines also like the idea that SAF can be used like traditional kerosene, without much changes to aircraft or fuel infrastructure. That is not the case with electric planes or hydrogen jets. Aircraft powered by hydrogen would have to be redesigned to accommodate larger fuel tanks. And batteries are now too heavy for electric planes to fly long distances with.

Delta is also exploring those technologies. It is working with Airbus to develop a hydrogen-powered aircraft and with Joby Aviation on electric air taxis for short-haul flights. Delta says “revolutionary aircraft” should make up 25 percent of its fleet by 2050. Still, in its new sustainability plans announced yesterday, Delta says SAF is “at the forefront” of its medium-term strategy.

Delta has committed to SAF off-take agreements worth 200 million gallons with approximately 50 corporate customers to date. That’s just a drop in the ocean. The world currently does not produce enough SAF to fuel Delta’s operations for even one day, the airline said in its announcement.

The company has achieved step-by-step milestones on its way to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. By the end of the decade, Delta expects SAF to account for 10 percent of fuel consumption and says it is already “halfway” to that goal . SAF utilization will reach 35 percent by 2035 under Delta’s plan. It then needs to make a big leap to more than 95 percent SAF by 2050.

The company hedges by saying it needs help from policymakers and the rest of the industry to get sustainable jet fuels off the ground. Building supply chains for SAF and making it more affordable than traditional jet fuel will require more investment and demand.

All these challenges make aviation one of the most difficult sectors to clean

On the other hand, the skyrocketing demand for SAF may have adverse environmental side effects. Without reducing demand for air travel, biofuel feedstocks could use an area of ‚Äč‚Äčabout 19 percent of the world’s arable land. That has some environmental advocates concerned about how SAF could contribute to deforestation in the future.

All these challenges make aviation one of the most difficult sectors to clean. According to the latest ESG report, Delta will generate approximately 27 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2021. That’s about how much climate pollution 68 gas-fired power plants can cause in a year. Jet fuel alone is responsible for 98 percent of Delta’s emissions, the company says.

Until recently, airlines, including Delta, relied heavily on carbon offset schemes to address their pollution. With carbon offsets, companies typically pay to support forestry or other conservation projects to make up for their emissions. The idea is that trees and plants will capture climate pollution through photosynthesis.

The bad news is that carbon offset projects, often due to poor planning and management, consistently fail to actually reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. In light of those failures, other airlines, including JetBlue, Air France and easyJet, have also begun to prioritize a transition to SAF.

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