To celebrate Earth Month, we sat down with Lauren Riley, United’s Global Environmental Affairs and Sustainability Managing Director, to talk about sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), how United is reducing the airline’s carbon footprint, and more.
What is your role at United?
My team is responsible for leading United’s efforts to achieve our climate commitments, including net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 without relying on traditional carbon offsets, as well as promoting environmental compliance across the United network.
What is something that people wouldn’t know about the sustainability initiatives within the aviation industry?
Aviation is recognized as a hard-to-abate industry, meaning we do not have a readily available solution to decarbonize flying today on a large scale. Aviation is responsible for just under 3 percent of global GHG emissions, and in the near future our relative contributions may [even] increase as other industries—for example, road vehicles—are able to shift to lower-carbon alternatives such as electric vehicles. The successful decarbonization of aviation will require collaboration with fuel producers to make more supply of SAF available, technology providers to develop new solutions, government officials to provide the right incentives to increase the availability of these solutions, and our customers to demand low-carbon alternatives.
What is SAF and how will it help us reduce our carbon footprint?
SAF is the nearest-term and most promising solution to decarbonize aviation. SAF is an alternative to conventional jet fuel derived from renewable or waste material, and it has the potential to emit up to 85 percent less carbon on a life cycle basis, compared to conventional jet fuel. What’s great about SAF is that it can be used in our current aircraft and in the existing fueling infrastructure at our airports. This is why we call it “drop-in ready.” United has been using a SAF blend for flights out of LAX on a continuous basis since 2016. At the end of 2021, United held twice the amount of publicly announced commitments for future use of SAF of all other airlines combined globally. And yet, today SAF is still far less than 1 percent of our total fuel supply—which is simply not good enough.
What is United’s primary focus within sustainability now? How about in five years, and leading up to 2050?
United has two primary climate goals. First, we have committed to net zero GHG emissions by 2050 without relying on traditional carbon offsets. We are the only airline in the world with this approach. Carbon offsets are essentially transactions whereby an organization finances decarbonization projects outside its operations. In return, the organization gets to claim the carbon reduction from the projects without modifying any of its own behaviors. Our position on this approach is really important to us, because we believe that we cannot afford at this time to call success by supporting a project outside of our energy supply chain when in fact we have a lot of work to do within aviation itself. Second, we recently announced a goal that, by 2035, we will reduce our carbon intensity— a measure of our carbon emissions per unit of economic output, in our case, available seat miles—by 50 percent compared to 2019, our last year of flying at normal capacity. Both of these goals are important in that they set mid- and long-term goals that align with the well below 2°C temperature goal of the Paris climate agreement.
What would you say to the skeptics who may doubt the effectiveness of sustainability efforts in the aviation industry?
We recognize that climate change is real, and we accept our responsibility in contributing to it. For more than a decade, United has been working heads down on delivering solutions that can decarbonize aviation. It will take time—and we expect that progress will not be linear. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and return to growth, we expect our near-term emission levels to increase. However, once scaled, new technologies like SAF have the ability to substantially curb emissions. I want progress too, but it must be achieved through permanent changes that remove the emissions from flying. On behalf of United Airlines, I assure you that our commitment to addressing climate change is sincere, and I look forward to demonstrating progress toward our commitments in the years to come.
Where do you see the aviation industry in terms of electric aircraft investments and SAF in the future?
I am more excited today than ever before about the future of aviation. SAF and alternative technologies, like electric aircraft, will require time to commercialize and implement on a broad scale. I do expect it will take time to meaningfully reduce aviation’s GHG emissions, because these technologies need time to mature. But we have a plan that we’ve been working hard on for more than a decade— finding the technologies that can decarbonize flying for all of aviation. Our commitment to our customers, employees, shareholders, and the communities we serve is to build a future that removes the emissions from flying, because that’s the right thing to do.
Next Up: Plotting a Sustainable Future with United Airlines Ventures