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It’ll take a lot more than $1 billion for Delta to go carbon-neutral

On Friday, Delta Air Lines pledged to commit $1 billion over the next decade to lower its emissions — with the goal of becoming the first airline to go carbon-neutral.

The move is fitting, considering the United Nations warned last year that there are only about 10 years left to take decisive action on climate change in order to “avert catastrophe.”

But is $1 billion enough? Delta’s planes alone account for 98% of its carbon footprint, and the cost of retrofitting just one plane could be millions of dollars. Currently, air travel accounts for roughly 2% of worldwide CO2 emissions. A billion dollars is a worthwhile step, but a drop in the bucket when it comes to climate change. If Delta wants to truly go carbon-neutral, it’ll cost a lot more.

The airline said in a press release it plans to develop “sustainable aviation fuels” alongside partners Northwest Advanced Bio-Fuels and Gevo, reduce fuel use in general by targeting waste management, and contribute to “forestry [and] wetland restoration” to rebuild ecosystems. The initiative is set to start at the beginning of next month.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian
Delta CEO Ed Bastian Chris Rank/Rank Studios/Flickr

In an interview with CNBC, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said he didn’t see the airline ever fully eliminating jet fuel or trading it for electric-powered aircraft.

“We will continue to use jet fuel for as far as the eye can see,” Bastian said on CNBC’s show Squawk Box. “We’ll be investing in technologies to reduce the impact of jet fuel, but I don’t ever see a future where we’ll eliminate jet fuel from our footprint.”

Even if some kind of carbon-free airplane existed, it would take much more than $1 billion to replace Delta’s fleet with electric aircraft. Delta is one of the world’s largest airlines, with hundreds of planes, and a new Boeing 737 starts at $89.1 million. Even if alternative-fuel aircraft end up costing the same as traditional ones, a billion dollars wouldn’t even buy 10 planes.

Bastin added Delta will continue to invest in technologies geared toward environmental sustainability. According to CNBC, Delta’s pledge is the most substantial climate proposal among its competitors.

In an effort of public transparency, the company, which is the largest airline in the U.S., also plans to share its goals and progress, while tracking its “achievements through our robust governance structure.” Delta has partnered with Global Citizen, a nonprofit organization, to help it reach United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Delta joins a number of other industry-leading businesses planning to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions. Microsoft pledged to be carbon-negative by 2030, 10 years before Amazon — a company that has taken a serious hit from conservationists who criticize CEO Jeff Bezos for not making climate change a priority in its business practices. Over a dozen Fortune 500 companies, including Apple and Google, urged the White House to stay in the Paris Agreement before President Trump said he intended to abandon it shortly after his inauguration.

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Meira Gebel
Meira Gebel is a freelance reporter based in Portland. She writes about tech, social media, and internet culture for Digital…
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