Climate Change News

First U.S. Airline Goes Carbon Neutral

JetBlue will buy carbon offsets for all domestic flights starting in July, but are carbon offsets enough to clean up a dirty industry?


JetBlue announced on Monday that it will purchase carbon offsets for all U.S. domestic flights starting in July to curtail fossil fuel emissions, a decision that experts both applauded and criticized as an answer for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

JetBlue will offset their carbon dioxide emissions by funding projects that include forest conservation, landfill gas capture, and renewable energy. The airline will also use sustainable fuel to power planes leaving from San Francisco International Airport. JetBlue did not release a cost estimate for the changes, but a spokesperson told CBS News that the decision would not raise ticket prices.

Several European airlines recently announced plans to buy offsets for domestic flights, including EasyJet, British Airways, and Air France. The aviation industry is trying to cut its emissions in half by 2050 compared with 2005 levels, Reuters reports.

Carbon Offsets and Airlines

Aviation has a large carbon footprint: If the aviation industry were a country, it would be among the top 10 global emitters, according to the European Union. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that transportation is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, contributing more than energy production or industry.

In the past, airlines offered passengers the option to voluntarily buy offsets from third-party sellers. But in one case study in Australia and the United Kingdom, only 10% of 500 passengers said they bought offsets. Jin-Long Lu at Taiwan’s National Kaohsiung University of Science and Technology said that passengers may not even know offsets are an option. According to a survey he conducted of more than a thousand passengers at Taoyuan International Airport in Taiwan, most passengers aren’t aware of offsetting programs or the negative impacts of air travel.

“I think this can be seen as a signal that airlines are starting to put the responsibility of reducing carbon emissions on themselves,” Lu said of JetBlue’s announcement. “I hope the decision made by JetBlue can be a good example [for other airlines].”

Do Offsets Work?

As American and European airlines begin pouring millions of dollars into offset programs, will the move clean up flying?

Purchasing offsets means that airlines can continue to emit greenhouse gasses while putting money into programs that halt future emissions. In the end, the net emissions should be zero.

But the effectiveness of offsets varies widely, depending on how they are implemented. A study in 2017 found that California reduced its carbon emissions through a carbon offset program aimed at preserving forests. But failed offsets have also made the news, such as false promises to plant a forest for the Vatican.

Susanne Becken, a professor of sustainable tourism at Griffith University in Australia, welcomed the news of JetBlue’s new initiative, but she also criticized the impact of offsets.

“If air travel sucks up all the good efforts made by everyone else, we are literally treading water and are exactly in the same position that we are now in 10 or 20 years,” Becken said. Airlines need to reduce their emissions from the start and transition off fossil fuels, she said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council recommends that individuals first reduce their emissions, then use offsets as a last resort. Their website states, “After you’ve done all you can to shrink your personal carbon footprint, it’s time to consider buying offsets.”

The Fine Print

For JetBlue’s offsets to make a difference, they’ll need to support projects that would not have occurred without their support, said Charles Mason, the associate dean of research in the College of Business at the University of Wyoming. Offset programs must inspire “additional” action that “would not have happened except for the introduction of the offset program,” Mason said.

Maron Greenleaf, a sociocultural anthropologist at Dartmouth College who studies environmental issues, said that certain offsets can also carry unintended consequences for communities, such as local residents “losing land rights in the name of forest protection.”

“In the forestry context, offsets also intervene in very complex social and ecological environments,” she said. “It’s not as easy as just saying that you’ll pay someone to forgo deforestation.”

Greenleaf said that although “any commitment from a big corporation to address their [greenhouse gas] emissions is welcome,” she urges the company to purchase quality offsets and remain transparent throughout the process.

Not the Only Answer

Lu said that airlines must cut emissions in multiple ways. Reducing baggage allowances, for example, would cut down on fuel use, as would investing in fuel-efficient fleets. Jet Blue had the worst fuel efficiency of any U.S. airline in 2017 and 2018, according to a white paper from the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation.

Airlines risk losing business if they don’t show concerted efforts to quit fossil fuels, said Becken. Domestic flights in Germany and Sweden dipped last year as passengers opted for trains instead of planes, reported Bloomberg. The antiflying movement, influenced by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, inspired the popular Swedish term flygskam, or “flight shame.”

“I am surprised that airlines are not more innovative in reassessing their business models,” Becken said. “If you look at it, they rely utterly on fossil fuels…there is no future for this.”

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), News Writing and Production Fellow

10 January 2020: This article has been updated to correct the name of National Kaohsiung University of Science and Technology.

Citation: Duncombe, J. (2020), First U.S. airline goes carbon neutral, Eos, 101, Published on 09 January 2020.
Text © 2020. AGU. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.