United Airlines announced Tuesday that it has partnered with global firms like Nike and Siemens in an “Eco-Skies Alliance” to fund the use of approximately 3.4 million gallons of low-carbon, sustainable aviation fuel from garbage this year.
While the amount is tiny compared to the 4.3 billion gallons of jet fuel United consumed in 2019 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount triples from the roughly 1 million gallons of sustainable fuel consumed every year since 2016 .
Airlines have been using sustainable fuel since 2008 to reduce direct emissions. According to industry groups, this has so far made up barely 1% of the fuel consumed worldwide.
Chicago-based United named 11 of more than a dozen global partners for the plan, but did not disclose the cost or contribution.
Aviation causes 2 to 3% of greenhouse gas emissions, the French aerospace association announced on Tuesday. Environmental groups argue that the total contribution of the sector is higher.
Partners include companies with corporate or freight deals with United such as Nike, Siemens, Palantir and Jan’s Takeda Pharmaceutical Co.
United said the project gives customers a way to reduce the environmental impact of flying beyond buying carbon offsets and could help create a market for sustainable aviation fuels.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” Chief Executive Scott Kirby told reporters. “I think there’s a big little thing for that.”
The aviation industry has focused more on buying carbon offsets to reduce the environmental impact of flying until new technologies were introduced to meet the sector’s goal of halving net emissions by 2050 compared to 2005.
Environmental critics say offsets do not directly address climate targets and mask the problem of persistent jet emissions.
United, which, along with a number of other airlines, has announced that it intends to more aggressively reduce net emissions by 100% by 2050, has criticized offsets and recently announced an investment in carbon-Cture technology. The company has invested in a sustainable aviation fuel manufacturer called Fulcrum BioEnergy.
“While we know planes will never be fully decarbonized, we won’t be using offsets to go 100% green,” said Kirby.
The aviation association IATA says that life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from sustainable fuel can be at least 80% lower than regular fuel and are the only medium-term option to contain emissions growth as airlines cannot yet switch to electric aircraft.
Delta Air Lines has announced that it will replace 10% of its current fossil fuel refined jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by the end of 2030.
While using waste avoids taking land from food production, environmental groups like Transport & Environment say such supplies are limited and face competition from other sectors.