United Airlines launched an effort on Tuesday to find more environmentally sustainable alternatives to jet fuel.
The company announced that partners such as JPMorgan Chase, Air Canada, Boeing, GE, and Honeywell are investing more than $100 million into United Airlines Ventures Sustainable Flight Fund, which is described as a “first-of-its-kind investment vehicle designed to support start-ups focused on decarbonizing air travel by accelerating the research, production and technologies associated with sustainable aviation fuel.” The substance would be an alternative to conventional jet fuel capable of reducing carbon emissions.
“Solving climate change is doable but it requires hard work and real leadership,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said in a press release. “This fund is unique. It’s not about offsets or things that are just greenwashing. Instead, we’re creating a system that drives investment to build a new industry around sustainable aviation fuel, essentially from scratch. That’s the only way we can actually decarbonize aviation.”
Aircraft are responsible for some 3% of total carbon emissions in the United States, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Sustainable aviation fuel, also known as SAF, can be “made from renewable biomass and waste resources” and has “the potential to deliver the performance of petroleum-based jet fuel but with a fraction of its carbon footprint,” according to a report from the Department of Energy.
United Airlines announced efforts to decarbonize air travel last year by preordering 400 electric aircraft from Eve Air Mobility with a $15 million investment into the venture. United Airlines likewise committed to spending $10 million on 100 electric planes from Archer Aviation.
“United has made early investments in several cutting-edge technologies at all levels of the supply chain, staking out our position as a leader in aviation sustainability and innovation,” United Airlines Ventures President Michael Leskinen remarked last year. “We believe our suite of clean energy technologies will revolutionize air travel as we know it and serve as the catalyst for the aviation industry to move toward a sustainable future.”
United Airlines immediately faced questions on the prudence of spending resources on finding an alternative to jet fuel. CNBC anchor Joe Kernen noted during an interview with Kirby that more than $3.8 trillion has been spent over the past decade on renewable energy even as fossil fuels declined from 82% to 81% of overall energy consumption. “This seems like you’re putting your toe in the water to say ‘We are trying to do something,’ but realistically speaking, when do you see any real replacement for the jet fuel you use right now?” Kernen asked. “What is a realistic number without just feeling good about doing this?”
Kirby responded by admitting that the green energy transition will not “happen overnight” but said sustainable aviation fuel must first reach commercial scale. “We’ve got to start making the investment today,” he said. “I am certain that’s the only way to eventually get to an answer for SAF and a hard-to-decarbonize industry like aviation.”
The sustainability investments and subsequent criticism of United Airlines comes amid backlash against the environmental, social, and corporate governance movement, also known as ESG, under which companies vow to seek outcomes such as emissions reduction or higher racial diversity in a manner that distracts from profit maximization.
United Airlines has vowed to completely eliminate its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. “We must reach across industries to develop coordinated efforts to accomplish what must be our collective goal of carbon neutrality,” Kirby said on a webpage about the company’s environmental commitments.