United Airlines is pledging to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050, the airline announced Thursday.
If United hits its goal, it would mean eliminating 21 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in the air each year, equivalent to taking 4.5 million cars off the road, United CEO Oscar Munoz said in a statement.
The Chicago-based airline is using its 2005 emissions as a starting point, in line with an industrywide target set by the International Air Transport Association. United's greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2007 and are 8 percent below the airline's 2005 level today, said Aaron Stash, United's manager of environmental strategy and sustainability.
United cares about sustainability, but the commitment also makes good business sense, Munoz wrote. Fuel is the airline's second-largest expense, costing more than $15,000 per minute, he wrote. It's also unpredictable, he added.
"Regardless of whether oil prices rise or fall, the inherent volatility and environmental impact of fossil fuels exert their own costs, to the bottom line, the customer and the planet," Munoz wrote. "The ultimate hedge against those costs is to transition to alternative and renewable sources of energy."
To hit its goal, United will be working to use cleaner fuels and reduce its overall fuel usage, Stash said.
Reductions in overall fuel use can come from fine-tuning operations to be more efficient, moving to newer, more efficient aircraft. Eventually, that could include electric airplanes, though that technology likely won't be ready for commercial use for decades, United said.
The airline also plans to increase its use of biofuels, which today reduce carbon emissions by 50 to 80 percent compared with traditional jet fuels, Stash said.
United already uses some biofuel, made from agricultural waste, on a daily basis in Los Angeles through a partnership with a refinery near that airport, adding up to more than 2 million gallons since 2016, the airline said.
The airline is working with a second biofuel-maker that plans to build refineries near hub airports to help increase its use of biofuels.
To mark the announcement, United said it would operate a flight from San Francisco to Zurich on Friday using 16,000 gallons of biofuel - or about 30 percent of the fuel required - along with conventional jet fuel. It will be the longest transatlantic flight operated by a U.S. airline powered by significant amounts of biofuel, United said.
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