Delta Has Spent $3.2 Billion to be Environmentally Sustainable. The Progress?

by | Jun 28, 2022

(Credit: Aemetis)

Delta Air Lines is one of the oldest airlines in the world. Headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, it operates 5,400 flights daily to 325 places in 52 countries. The company says that addressing climate change and building a more sustainable world is integral to its mission. 

To that end, it has set science-based targets in line with the Paris climate agreement — to keep temperature increases to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by mid-century from industrial levels. The company set out to reduce its carbon footprint in 2015. But that mission has expanded and now includes hitting net-zero no later than 2050. 

In 2021, Delta spent about $3.2 billion to become more environmentally sustainable. Most of that money went to new aircraft that are 25% more fuel-efficient per mile. It also went into making its terminals more energy efficient. In addition, it vowed to make a quarter of its ground equipment electric and half of it to run on electricity by 2025.

Among its other sustainability efforts: using more sustainable aviation fuels and buying carbon credits — money given to rainforest nations so that they can preserve their trees that soak up CO2. While the primary focus is on decarbonizing aviation and reaching net-zero by 2050, Delta has long purchased carbon offsets. In fact, Bloomberg says it is the biggest corporate buyer of those credits. 

“To pull the future of sustainable aviation forward, we need partnerships and coalitions to accelerate the development and commercialization of potentially disruptive technologies,” says Pam Fletcher, Delta’s Chief Sustainability Officer for Delta in the 2021 Sustainability Report. 

Are these efforts a success?

— It has improved fuel efficiency by 0.8% from 2020 to 2021. 

— It aims to use 10% sustainable aviation fuels by 2030. But 39% of 2020’s sustainable aviation fuels have been secured through “off-take agreements.” In other words, Delta has agreed to buy a producer’s output, which guarantees the producer revenues, and it guarantees Delta will get the fuel. In July 2019, Delta flew the first of 20 carbon-neutral new aircraft. 

  It has fallen short of making a quarter of its ground equipment electric by 2022. Only 19% of it now is. 

— In 2019, it set out to become net-zero by 2050. To get there, it purchased 7.8 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent, according to Bloomberg. Delta, though, maintains that 27 million metric tons were offset in 2021.

— To that end, it said it would spend $1 billion to be carbon neutral by 2030. Carbon offsets are a big part of that. It has spent $137 million to purchase and retire those carbon offset credits. Delta is the only U.S. airline to voluntarily cap greenhouse gas emissions at 2012 levels even with 20 percent growth — a strategy that requires it to use carbon offsets.

— In 2007, Delta implemented an in-flight recycling program. Since then, the program has recycled more than 3 million pounds of aluminum from onboard waste. 

— In 2018, In 2018, Delta started on board and in Delta Sky Clubs to eliminate more than 300,000 pounds of plastic waste annually.

“In addition to bringing in third-party programs such as EcoVadis, we are integrating sustainability standards in supplier touch points including the Supplier Code of Conduct, our request for proposal process, and our contract templates,” says Delta’s sustainability report. These touch points are intended to strengthen and clarify expectations on labor and human rights, worker health and safety, and treatment of the environment and natural resources.” 

How does Delta plan to maintain this progress or speed it up?

In 2021, it embraced a science-based targets initiative. It will hit net-zero no later than 2050. The goal does not just apply to its airline operations, but it will also impact its entire value chain. That is Scope 1,2 and 3 emissions. At the same time, it is improving the emission intensity in the medium term: it aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from jet fuel on a per revenue ton kilometer basis by 2035 compared to a 2019 baseline. 

“Our ability to achieve our ambitious climate goals is dependent on the actions of governments and third parties,” Delta says. It will require “significant capital investment” from the private and public sectors. The aim is to reduce the cost of technologies that are not yet commercially available. If they reach scale, the price will fall, and success will come. 

It says that its emissions will grow even with meaningful improvements in fuel efficiency.  That’s because the company will expand and deliver more passengers to more destinations. “We would aim to achieve absolute emission reductions over the medium- to long-term as we move toward 2050 and more low-carbon technologies become commercially and economically available,” it says. 

It expects success by deploying new jets, sustainable aviation fuels, and operational improvements. It acknowledges that it will need more carbon credits to fulfill its net-zero goals. 

Already, it has started to replace more fuel-efficient jets. It started this in 2019, and it will continue until 2035. Indeed, jet fuel is the leading contributor to its carbon footprint. In 2020, it retired more than 200 aircraft. It is replacing them with planes that are 25% more fuel-efficient.

Moreover, sustainable aviation fuels will play a key role in decarbonization, although it is not yet available at scale or price parity with jet fuel. 

“For the aviation industry to achieve net-zero by 2050, an exponential increase to 330-445 billion gallons of SAF by 2050 could be required, according to the Air Transport,” Delta says. “By 2030, Delta aims to procure more than 400 million gallons of SAF annually to meet our 10% goal, which is almost 40 times the total global SAF production in 2019.”

With that, Delta established a goal in 2019 to replace at least 5% of conventional jet fuel consumption with sustainable aviation fuels. Achieving those goals will require significant investments in renewable electricity, it adds. When coupled with direct air capture of carbon at sustainable aviation fuel production facilities, that would “have the potential to achieve life cycle emissions reductions beyond the 80% maximum estimated today.” 

Delta’s whole purpose is to fly customers worldwide — either for business or pleasure. If adverse weather conditions are a function of climate change, it impacts their business and revenues. Specifically, coastal destinations that would experience rising tides might be more complex or costly to reach. 


Editor’s note: Don’t miss the virtual Environment+Energy Leader Solutions Summit, July 19-21. Learn tangible, innovative solutions to the struggles you face every day. Speakers from companies including Kellogg’s, Estée Lauder Companies, American Family Insurance, Tillamook and many more will share tactics and lessons-learned that can help you solve your energy management, sustainability and ESG challenges. Learn more about the Summit here, or go straight to registration!

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