February 14, 2020 / 10:49 PM / 6 months ago

Breakingviews - Delta’s climate journey needs better flight plan

Delta airlines flights are shown parked at their gates at the airport in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., January 12, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Another day, another major company unveils vague plans to reduce its carbon emissions. Days after BP set out goals to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, Delta Air Lines flew in on Valentine’s Day with its own green program. Chief Executive Ed Bastian is making all the right noises in his 10-year, $1 billion plan to make the airline carbon neutral. But its new ambitions are, for now, just grand pledges that lack important detail and accountability.

Bastian does have some solid experience he can point to. The $38 billion airline has kept it greenhouse-gas emissions at 2012 levels. His idea of working with everyone from customers to rivals to suppliers to investors is precisely the kind of action that needs to happen. His proposed solutions hit the mark, too, from buying more fuel-efficient planes to developing cleaner gasoline, from planting trees and wetlands to developing new carbon-capture technologies.

But there are flaws in the big reveal. He is already doing some of what he says, for example. One way the company has kept emissions down is by purchasing offsets, such as funding programs that plant trees and reduce carbon in construction. That’s fine as it goes, but is just a financial transaction. Effectively eliminating carbon pollution requires far more work. While Bastian acknowledges that the company “doesn’t have all the answers,” and that there is “no single solution,” he is not announcing any new partnerships or specific investments. He has also given no indication of how he and his team arrived at the magic $1 billion figure.

That equates to just 3% of Delta’s earnings over the past decade, or, on an annual basis, to three times the $33 million or so that much smaller UK budget airline easyJet is spending on carbon offsets. There’s also no information on whether the money includes work Delta was already undertaking. Nor are any of these goals clearly factored into how the board decides executive pay.

That doesn’t make Delta’s plans greenwashing – yet. But Delta, BP and all the other companies laying out multi-year environmental goals need to do more before such pledges can be taken seriously.

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