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Here's what it means when companies like Delta go 'carbon neutral'

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer

Delta Air Lines (DAL) announced Friday that it would become the “first carbon neutral airline globally” and is committing $1 billion to the effort.

For an airline that burns jet fuel as its core operation, this isn’t the easiest idea to wrap your head around. Though it may happen someday, commercial air travel is not electric or hydrogen cell based. Delta and other airlines have been buying more fuel-efficient aircraft, but burning less fuel won’t get you carbon neutral. 

So what exactly is Delta doing? And what does it mean when a corporation goes ‘carbon neutral’?

Generally, it means that a company’s net contribution of carbon into the atmosphere is zero and that it engages in activities that remove the same amount of carbon that it emits into the atmosphere. For example, for every passenger that flies 1,000 miles, an airline might donate $3 to plant trees. Trees are carbon negative, scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air.

A worker fuels a Delta Connection regional airlines passenger jet at Logan International Airport in Boston. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)

Companies like Delta tend to think of carbon like a cash-flow statement, with carbon spent from operations (flying a plane) on one side and carbon removed from green initiatives (protecting forests) on the other.

The airline industry overall contributes 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions. To even out all the carbon spewed from burned jet fuel, Delta plans to spend money on forestry, wetland restoration, grassland conversation, and marine and soil capture as examples. 

In the past, Delta has worked with The Nature Conservancy and offered carbon offsets for customers. Here’s an example of how much it might cost, from the Points Guy.

A trip from JFK to LAX is 4,934 miles flown, which creates 0.689 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. Delta quotes the offset at $10.33, which is $15 per tonne. 

Scams and accountability are concerns

The carbon offsetting industry is very new, however, and already not without scandal. Reports have found that these programs can be pretty loosely defined and may feature some “look the other way” behavior, as companies may not follow up to see if trees are actually planted or if any of these activities are doing anything. 

In Québec, Canadian newspaper La Presse found that the 2 billion trees that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government promised didn’t seem to exist. Instead, the land was found “leveled and sparse,” which raised “doubts about the efficacy of these green initiatives.”

Even if a company does decide to verify that the trees it promised are legit, the math might be fuzzy. How many trees can scrub a tonne of CO2 from the atmosphere? There are many different estimates, but 15 trees per metric tonne is a “conservative” measurement from CarbonNeutral.co.au. Of course, it also takes a long time for the offset to happen. According to CarbonNeutral, it takes about 30 years for the trees to do 80% of the offset.

These figures are really tough to determine, since tree density per acre is variable.

As carbon neutrality and offsetting becomes more popular, there will likely be more scrutiny of results as companies like Delta demand accountability — if not for the fight against wasted dollars, to make sure a good PR opportunity isn’t left on the table.

As Wired noted, “If all the detail you see is ‘we plant trees,’ perhaps do a little more digging.”

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Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, personal finance, retail, airlines, and more. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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