Is Delta Airlines Progressive, Delusional, or Deceitful?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Airbus 350From its claims at least, Delta Airlines appears to be ahead of the crowd in progressive thinking about the huge contribution airlines make to carbon emissions, and their failure to curtail them. Yet, does Edward H. Bastian, Delta’s CEO, really believe that Delta can reduce jet aircraft emissions from burning jet fuel all that much?

That seems doubtful. Bastian has sworn off the sham of carbon offsets, but financing “green” projects like planting trees somewhere cannot mitigate the global heating caused by jet engine emissions. If that is his claim, then Delta is either delusional or deceitful.

The Carbon Predicament

The airline industry is a major contributor to the carbon emissions that cause the heating of the planet and all the climate disruption and ecological destruction that entails. Not entirely unlike other industries, the airlines find themselves in a predicament. However, for mostly technical reasons their predicament may be a lot worse.

It is the nature of transporting people cross-country or between continents, of fresh Alaska Salmon to your favorite high-end restaurant or to Whole Foods Market quickly, that such activity consumes a great deal of energy. Jet fuel (essentially kerosene) and jet engines provide the power to do just that. No low-emissions alternative is anywhere near available. The simplest and most disruptive alternative is to constrain the total number of airline flights.

Electric airplaneSome initial progress has resulted in a few very small very light aircraft powered by electricity stored in on-board batteries. These light electric aircraft can fly for an hour or so, making them quite cost-effective for pilot training, given the cost of fuel not burned. However, the application of electric power—sourced renewably of course—to commercial airline operations appears to be quite a way off into the future, long after most tipping points to global chaos have passed. The power to weight ratios of battery-stored energy for larger airliners just do not work.

Good Thoughts vs. Doing Good

In a recent CNBC interview, Delta’s Edward Bastian appears to express quite progressive environmental thinking—for a corporate CEO anyway. However, it appears that his claim that Delta will “go fully carbon neutral next month” does not mean Delta will be carbon neutral. Instead, on March 1, Delta will most likely initiate significant (but so far unspecified) new programs in that direction. (Oh, that was yesterday.)

On the other hand, I remain skeptical that any airline, which consumes so much jet fuel, operates all those support vehicles, terminal equipment, and so on, can actually become “carbon neutral” within its own operations. Bastian admits that offsets cannot achieve the emissions reductions we all need from every industrial operation now. But investing in reforestation or other positive environmental projects cannot compensate for the carbon Delta itself emits. In today’s extreme urgency of the Climate Emergency, only direct de-carbonization has a chance of dampening the impact of climate chaos.

For any industry, that is the climate’s bottom line. Burning fossil fuels is itself the problem collectively. Therefore, each energy-consuming entity must consume a great deal less, NOW. Technology to improve jet engine efficiency is also not the answer since no improvement in jet engine efficiency—and the significant improvements already made have approached the limits—can achieve carbon neutrality.

I fear there is a bit of wishful thinking at Delta, if not misleading characterizations of what is possible and what Delta Airlines can actually accomplish. Yet, I do appreciate Delta’s efforts. Let’s hope they prove useful, even though they will not be enough.

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