Delta Airlines and climate change: one-way ticket?

Airlines generate 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The industry is well aware, and set the goal of reducing net emissions by 50% before 2050. Will they achieve it? Is this enough? Keep reading to explore these questions using Delta Airlines as an example.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency statistics, the transportation sector generated 26% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2014. In the US alone, aircraft generated 151.5 Tg of CO2 equivalent GHG, or 2.2% of total emissions. Given the large GHG footprint, heavy industry regulations, and passenger demand doubling every 30 years, it seems inevitable for Airlines to play a significant role to stop climate change.

Fortunately, the airline industry is aware of this reality. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), comprising around 265 member airlines that carry 83% of the world’s air traffic, has set specific short-, mid-, and long-term targets to mitigate CO2 emissions: Improve fuel efficiency by 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020, cap net aviation emissions from 2020 (“carbon-neutral growth”), and reduce 50% on net aviation emissions by 2050, relative to 2005 levels. Although IATA considers this targets both ambitious and possible, questions remain: Will airlines comply with the IATA targets? Are these initiatives sufficient? This article intends to briefly explore these questions through Delta Airline’s case, one of the world’s largest airlines.

By almost any metric, Delta is huge. During 2015, the company served 180+ million customers, employed 84,000+ people, reached 340 destinations across 64 countries, and operated about 1,270 aircraft. As a result, Delta generated a sizeable amount of GHG: 37.7 Tg of CO2 equivalent, or roughly 25% of the total US aircraft emissions. With such a significant contribution to global warming, the reader might wonder how does Delta plan to reduce their GHG emissions? Is Delta taking extra actions beyond the IATA targets? Let’s find out.

According to 2015’s Delta sustainability report, their climate change strategy is tightly related to IATA’s GHG emissions targets. To achieve them, Delta has focused on operational fuel efficiency improvements, aircraft weight removal, and aircraft maintenance and improvements. So far, Delta seems to be doing an OK-to-good job at meeting IATA targets, although some concerns remain:

Delta 2015 performance

In addition to pursuing IATA GHG emission targets, Delta is also seeking to introduce alternative fuels that are more environmentally sustainable than traditional fossil fuels. As of 2015, Delta was one of the four airlines to have experimented with biofuel mixes. However, this effort remains too limited in scope – Delta has not committed to any specific biofuels targets, and has only tested in a single international flight (which was done in collaboration with Virgin Atlantic, another airline).

Delta’s relative success to date in reducing net GHG emissions is encouraging. If other airlines follow, perhaps the industry as a whole could cut net global emissions by 1%. This would be a 50% industry-wide reduction vs. 2005… but is it enough? Is the remaining 1% of global GHG emissions really inseparable from the long-distance travel industry?

According to Silicon Valley Billionaire Elon Musk, the answer is no. He and his company have been developing a novel transportation mode called Hyperloop, which by 2020 promises to connect cities faster and safer than planes, with zero emissions. What impact would such a technology have on Airlines? Are they prepared to deal with Hyperloop or similar technologies entering the market?

Delta, at least, seems vulnerable to potential industry disruptions. Delta shows no trace of research, investment, or acquisition of new travel technologies. Thus, I wonder… Has Delta bought a one-way ticket in a potentially declining industry?


United States Environmental Protection Agency:

United States Department of Transportation:

International Air Transport Association:

Delta Airlines:

(800 words)


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Student comments on Delta Airlines and climate change: one-way ticket?

  1. Fascinating post. I really liked your point about Delta’s lack of investment in new travel technologies, which is a relevant question when looking at the timespan of climate change. Currently, Delta’s sustainability framework focuses on incremental improvements: how can it improve fuel efficiency? How can Delta cap emissions? But to your point, even if they are successful and use their market power to convince all other airlines to adopt similar policies, the reduction in GHG gases will only be 1%, seemingly not enough. Perhaps Delta should partner early with Hyperloop or one of its competitors and offer to be a “carrier” of such a transportation method. This would be a significant step at creating a sustainable supply chain – essentially choosing suppliers based on their carbon footprint.

  2. As a fellow airline enthusiast, it was interesting to read your analysis of another carrier’s climate change positioning. Thanks for the info! You mention that “true sustainability will require significant reduction in total GHG emissions from operations.” But won’t Delta always be a net emitter of greenhouse gases by virtue of its core business? In other words, can Delta ever achieve “true sustainability,” or will it always need to rely on purchasing emissions credits, generating its own credits by deploying projects in other areas of its operation, etc.? Is purchasing or generating emissions credits to achieve carbon neutral status necessarily an inherently bad thing?

    1. Thanks BJF for your comment. I do not see carbon neutrality as inherently bad. I believe that we, as a planet, will be fine if we reduce overall CGH emissions to a sustainable level, regardless of its sources.

      My concern is more general. It seems that too many industries are choosing to “neutralize” their emissions via stakes on carbon bonds, or similar instruments. I wonder, however, are there sufficient such instruments for every industry? My intuition is that if we want to achieve global sustainability, at some point we will need to make fundamental shifts in how our industries operate. I don’t know for sure if airlines will be one of such industries, but considering that potentially feasible travel alternatives are being developed, it might be worth the try.

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