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Sustainability Takes Flight

Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Jon Nightingale

By Annie Iezzi

As Climate Week soared to its close on Friday, September 27th, United Airlines and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey sponsored the panel Sustainability Takes Flight to help “chart a course for greener aviation”. Aviation needs all the help that it can muster in this arena, as Christine Weydig, the Director of the Office of environmental and Energy Programs at Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, pointed out, it is one of the toughest sectors to decarbonize. In fact, according to Weydig, 2% of global carbon emissions are constituted by the aviation sector, and this number is only rising.

Before introducing the panel, Weydig laid out the mission of her group and others like it: to focus on action in decarbonizing aviation. “As much as this is a discussion forum,” she warned, “it must be action oriented. We are willing to pay more for green aviation and green transportation.” As proof of her dedication to action, she also announced that the Port Authority offset all emissions of travelers to the day’s event, hoping to normalize in-sector offsetting in the future.

With that, Weydig introduced the day’s panel, “Fueling Aviation’s Future” moderated by Joel Makower of Green Biz Group. Makower has been one of the leading voices in sustainability for over thirty years, and even still, he mentioned the scariest words that he’d heard about aviation were from the teen revolutionary, Greta Thunberg. Makower has faith that the younger generation represents a new approach to climate management and flight shaming, citing a rise in train ridership throughout Europe that is coinciding with a decrease in air travel. This can be buttressed, he said, by prices that reflect a preference for less carbon heavy forms of travel. “This is not about tinkering at the margins,” the activist insisted. “We may have to work against our best business interests to address climate change at the speed, scope, and scale necessary.” Fuel switching technology, market demand, education, standardization, and collaboration are all vitally important factors to brining change to the mainstream.

After his rousing call to action, Makower introduced the rest of the panel, comprised of Aaron Robinson from United Airlines, Tim Massimiano from Jet Blue, Neville Fernandes of Neste, and Stephanie Batchelor from the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. Robinson kicked off the panel by expressing United Airlines’ commitment to 50% less carbon emissions in the next few years through reworking fuel efficiency and switching to more sustainable jet fuels. Fernandes jumped in to elaborate on the five currently approved technologies for this fuel, but unfortunately, his excitement was tempered by the fact that for every eighty billion gallons of petroleum fuel made, only a few million gallons of sustainable fuel are produced. To this end, the participating companies are working together to popularize the hydrodeoxygenation of waste, fats and greases to produce a hydrocarbon fuel applicable to diesel engines. This fuel has already been implemented in European airports and will be coming to LAX in 2020.

Massimiano from Jet Blue Airlines interjected to discuss the company’s pledge of no-risk offtake, which is like a power purchase agreement for shareholders. This allows Jet Blue to pursue a push for Low Carbon Fuel Standards in New York, which can already be seen in action in NYC’s three airports, all of which use sustainable fuel on some level, although the industry must be scaled. Robinson agreed, citing United Airlines’ use of one million gallons of renewable fuel yearly, hoping to grow in future years with the company’s thirty million dollar investment in technology development for the product. “We are not currently fuel sustainable, says Robinson, “but it took aviation as an industry twenty years to be financially sustainable. There needs to be a greater willingness to take risks; the aviation industry is currently very risk averse,” he urged his colleagues. 

These financial risks could take the form of investment in renewable fuel startup companies or reputational risks, such as raised prices. “There is huge opportunity across biowaste,” Batchelor agrees, “it’s a matter of how we get there.” As the panel was coming to a close, Makower asked Batchelor what would be on her industry wishlist for renewable aviation. Her response was manifold: investors in technology, fuel buyers, and policy with the potential to advance the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. Seemingly a straightforward list, Batchelor explains that the Low Carbon Fuel Standard has been politicized by companies that view it as a financial burden, many of which have now gone into cosmetics production. 

Finally, Makower asked of these conscientious corporate representatives what all of the attendees had been thinking: “What would it take for you to do more?” More than offset some carbon emissions, more than attend a panel, more than look for investors. The question was met with silence and a few laughs, and while it created tension, it highlighted exactly how far aviation has to go before it reaches a sustainable status. “We are seeing demand from consumers for renewable fuel. Customers are making that decision to pursue sustainable aviation, and we need to show them that aviation can be carbon constrained,” Massimiano finally answered. “We need to generate and see large awareness about travel footprints.”

Annie Iezzi is the Managing Editor of Honeysuckle Magazine and a third-year student at Barnard College of Columbia University, studying English and Political Science and writing in her scarce (and cherished) free time.

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