United Airlines CEO Gives Straight Talk on Sustainability

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby admits to angering some of his competitors when the carrier committed to becoming 100 percent green by 2050 without relying on traditional carbon offsets.

Battery-powered aircraft and tree planting are among the sustainability bubbles Kirby burst during an interview at the Reuters Responsible Business USA event in Brooklyn, NY earlier today.

“I just can’t stand the hypocrisy and putting a fig leaf over it and pretending to solve it as a marketing initiative when you know you haven’t,” Kirby told an audience of corporate sustainability professionals.

On carbon offsets, Kirby said there was not enough room on earth for the forests required to offset emissions from commercial aviation. “We’d starve to death” due to the lack of available land for food crops.

While acknowledging that United has invested in zero-emission aircraft engine technology, Kirby said the only plausible use would involve short-haul routes.

“The most emissions are big airplanes flying long distances,” he said, countering that the weight of batteries would preclude this a for New York to India flight with 300 passengers.

Carbon sequestration and sustainable jet fuel are far more feasible solutions, but each requires political support that is challenging to achieve with lawmakers focused on the next election cycle rather than the long-term health of the planet, said Kirby, a father of seven who talks about his commitment to leaving a healthy planet for his children.

Wind and solar faced similar challenges decades ago but have since been commercialized and are working at scale as replacements for fossil fuels, said Kirby.

“It becomes cost competitive but not on day one,” Kirby said of sustainable jet fuel, which is “almost doesn’t exist today” and is challenging to produce with current government subsidies in place encouraging refiners to include ethanol in gasoline.

President Biden’s failed Build Back Better bill, even when walled down, would likely include provisions encouraging sustainable aviation by subsidizing greener jet fuel.

On carbon sequestration — the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide — Kirby is more optimistic.

“Carbon capture is the only scalable technology that we have today that can actually solve the climate problem,” he said. “It’s just a question of, ‘Are we as a globe willing to spend the money?’ A more likely solution in the short term is setting a price for carbon emissions, he said. “My view is that the simple way to solve this problem is a carbon tax.”

United’s chief executive also aimed criticism at its primary regulator, the US Federal Aviation Administration, for exacerbating the climate crisis by failing to eliminate “zig-zag” flight routes rather than the shortest distance from point to point.

“The biggest low hanging fruit is air traffic control. We still fly highways in the sky… laid down 100 years ago. We waste fuel by not flying in a straight line, and we could.”

Image credit via United Airlines/3BL Media

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