Earth Day 2021: What your favorite airlines and hotels are doing to fight climate change
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On this Earth Day, April 22, we are publishing a selection of environmentally themed stories that have appeared previously on our site. With them, we want to remind ourselves that it’s possible to combine travel with being mindful of the impact it can have on the environment. This story originally appeared on January 17, 2020. It has been edited to reflect news developments.
The Earth is getting warmer, and it’s because of human-made pollution. The science is clear on the matter. A new report from NASA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) confirmed that 2020 was tied with 2016 for the warmest years since records began being kept in 1880.
In a press release from NASA, the director of a NASA laboratory managed by the Earth Sciences Division of the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Gavin Schmidt, said:
“The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend. Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important – the important things are long-term trends. With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken.”
The new report highlights the alarming trend of rapidly climbing temperatures. Companies around the world are increasingly acknowledging their roles in global emissions. While the pandemic led to a drop in emissions from cruise ships, airplanes and other travel, the overall trend is going in the wrong direction.
Here’s a roundup of what your favorite travel companies are doing to help save the Earth.
Delta Air Lines
Delta Air Lines has had a long-running investment in sustainability, and it has really doubled down the past few years. In fact, CEO Ed Bastian called climate change “the greatest challenge of our lifetimes.”
In February of last year, Delta committed to becoming the world’s first airline to become carbon neutral on a global basis.
As part of a long-term effort to address environmental concerns, Delta said it would invest time and money into:
- Carbon reduction including fleet renewals, weight reductions and increased use of sustainable fuels
- Investing in carbon-removal initiatives, such as tree planting, and investments in emerging carbon capture technologies
- Partnering with Northwest Advanced Bio-Fuels and Gevo on recycled jet fuel
- Reducing plastic usage and increasing recycling and composting
- Pushing for modernization of air traffic control, which Delta believes would reduce delays and fuel consumption
“There is just no substitute for the power that travel has to change lives and make the world a better place. And we’re committed to making our business of connecting people to the world one that also is environmentally minded,” said Delta’s Bastian. “Starting with voluntarily capping our carbon emissions at 2012 levels, we continue to reduce our footprint and invest in natural climate solutions as well as projects that support local economies worldwide.”
Delta is investing more than $100,000 in The International Small Group & Tree Planting Program (TIST), a program that supports subsistence farmers in countries like Kenya and Uganda to reverse the effects of deforestation, drought and famine through tree planting and conservation farming.
Delta says, “In 2020, the company retired more than 200 older aircraft. The new aircraft replacing those planes are 25 percent more fuel-efficient per seat mile than the aircraft they replace.” Delta also introduced new aircraft like the state-of-the-art A220. The new planes are 25% more fuel-efficient.
In 2007, Delta became the first U.S. airline to enable customers to offset the carbon emissions generated through travel, on delta.com/co2 or through the Fly Delta app. In 2021, the company added a calculator for you to figure out how much carbon your flight is generating. You can purchase offsets directly.
Delta also has been making its current planes lighter. Those efforts include installing carbon brakes on all its planes, reducing weight by about 700 pounds per plane.
Alaska Airlines is announcing big news just in time for Earth Day. The Seattle-based airline said it would reduce its carbon emissions to net-zero by 2040.
It also signed onto the Climate Pledge, a commitment to achieving net-zero-carbon 10 years ahead of the Paris Climate Agreement.
The company also said it would set aggressive goals to cut down on waste and reduce water usage by 2025. Alaska released the following information:
Alaska’s roadmap to 2040 includes five focus areas to reach net-zero emissions:
- Fleet renewal
- Operational efficiency
- Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)
- Novel propulsion
- Credible, high-quality carbon offsetting technology
Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci said this week:
“Air travel connects us to our friends and families, helps us understand one another, and helps communities across the globe grow and thrive. But we know that to live our purpose, creating an airline people love, we must operate every day in a way that cares for both people and our planet. That’s why we’ve set out on this bold path to reduce our climate impact near and long term.”
Alaska Airlines, the Port of Seattle and Boeing are also partnering with the goal of powering all flights by all airlines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with 10% sustainable aviation biofuel by 2028. Sea-Tac is the first U.S. airport to lay out a long-term plan to incorporate aviation biofuel into its infrastructure and wants all jet fuel to be 50% biofuel by 2050.
Sea-Tac airport in October 2019. (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)
American Airlines is also expanding its efforts to combat global warming. In fact, it has committed to having net-zero direct carbon emissions by 2050.
AA told TPG:
- We’ve set a goal to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050
- We’ve committed to purchase 9 million gallons of SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuel) over three years from Neste, and we began to take delivery of this SAF at San Francisco International Airport in July 2020
- We’ve introduced a customer-facing carbon offset program, enabling our customers to purchase verified offsets through Cool Effect, a nonprofit organization
- And regarding our fleet, we have taken delivery of 550 new, more fuel-efficient aircraft since 2013 while retiring a similar number of older, less fuel-efficient planes
In a statement, AA said:
“We recognize that air travel has impacts on the environment, and we’re committed to proactively minimizing those impacts in a number of ways. Our sustainability efforts are embedded in our operation, from our unmatched fleet renewal program to our wide-ranging efforts to improve fuel efficiency. We take pride in doing our part to take care of our environment, just as we take care of people on life’s journey each and every day.”
American said that, since 2013, the airline has taken delivery of more than 550 aircraft and retired virtually the same number, resulting in the youngest fleet of any U.S. network carrier. American says many of its new aircraft are up to 40 percent more fuel-efficient than older models.
American ranks among the top 50 on the EPA’s list of the largest green-power users among Fortune 500 companies.
United Airlines has been a leader in the use of eco-fuel, making history in 2016 by becoming the first U.S. airline to use commercial-scale volumes of sustainable biofuel for regularly scheduled flights with its Eco-Skies program.
In a letter to customers, United CEO Scott Kirby said, “We’ve committed to being 100% green by reducing our carbon emissions 100% by 2050 and have invested in ground-breaking technology to make our goal a reality.”
United said it is doubling down on sustainable aviation fuels and other decarbonization technologies with its Eco-Skies program. Kirby saying, “We’re already the largest airline purchaser of SAF (sustainable aviation fuel) in the world, and today, big brands like Deloitte, DHL Global Forwarding, HP Inc. and Siemens will join us to purchase the emissions reductions from approximately 3.4 million gallons of SAF this year. That’s enough to fly travelers over 220 million miles. By joining forces, we’re demonstrating what companies can achieve when they come together for the greater good.”
In 2019 United pledged to buy up to 10 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel over two years. United is also investing $30 million in a California-based sustainable aviation fuels producer, Fulcrum BioEnergy.
United also was the first airline to fly with Boeing’s Split Scimitar winglets, which reduce fuel consumption by 2% over traditional winglets. Nearly 400 aircraft have these winglets. The company is also replacing old ground equipment with cleaner, electrically powered alternatives — more than 40% of that fleet has been converted. And United is ditching non-recyclable plastic stirring sticks and replacing them with bamboo.
JetBlue Airways has been ambitious with its goal of net-zero carbon emissions for its airline operations by 2040. In 2020, it became the first airline to achieve carbon neutrality for all domestic flying primarily through carbon offset purchases.
“Our vision is to lead the way to a lower-carbon future for aviation. To get there, we are focused on innovations that offer meaningful reductions in emissions – and are setting clear targets along the way,” said Joanna Geraghty, president and chief operating officer at JetBlue. “We’re facing climate change head-on and are seeking opportunities to reduce natural resource consumption, such as increasing use of renewable energy and minimizing waste produced.”
The airline announced last year that it would offset up to 17 billion pounds of emissions per year. JetBlue told us that’s like taking 1.5 million cars off the road. The airline is partnering with Carbonfund.org to offset all flights operating in the United States through forest conservation projects, solar and wind farm development and converting landfill gas into renewable energy rather than allowing it to escape into the air.
JetBlue confirmed to TPG the airline is operating all flights from San Francisco (SFO) with “Neste MY Renewable Jet Fuel.” Neste says its fuel is made from recycled oils and other materials and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 80% over traditional jet fuel.
JetBlue is also running a special sweepstakes for Earth Day 2021.
Customers can go to jetbluegreenup.com, where they can enter the GreenUp sweepstakes for a chance to win a variety of carbon-neutral JetBlue prizes, including one pair of round-trip Mint tickets, JetBlue Vacations packages or JetBlue flight certificates. JetBlue will offset carbon emissions for air travel awarded. Participants can receive additional entries in the sweepstakes by reviewing eco-friendly fun facts at jetbluegreenup.com and signing up for the EarthDay.Org newsletter or participating in their “Great Global Clean Up.”
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly has said, “Doing the right thing for our planet is not just ‘good business,’ it is necessary for our survival.” Kelly has joined a pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The airline pointed me to their order for 100 Boeing 737 MAX jets showing their “commitment to continued modernization of its fleet with more fuel-efficient and climate-friendly aircraft.”
“The MAX aircraft, with CFM International’s LEAP-1B engines, enable exceptional operational efficiencies such as a 14 percent lower rate of fuel burn that reduces carbon emissions, quieter engines which benefit the communities we serve, and excellent dispatch reliability to support our on-time operations,” said Mike Van de Ven, Southwest’s Chief Operating Officer.
Southwest has also been working with companies like Red Rock Biofuels on alternative jet fuels. In fact, the BBC reports Southwest is expected to test a new biofuel by 2023 made with kitchen scraps.
Southwest said, “Whether through investments in advanced, fuel-efficient aircraft, utilizing electric ground support equipment, or finding innovative ways to reduce energy consumption at our airport facilities, we’re always looking for new ways to improve our energy efficiency.”
The airline also said it has been making steady progress in reducing its emissions over the past decade. “We have invested more than $600 million in fuel efficiency improvements since 2002,” the company says.
Southwest has been experimenting with “green” plane interiors since at least 2009.
The airline also told TPG, “In honor of our 50th anniversary and Earth Day, Southwest Airlines is joining forces with our partners at the National Forest Foundation (NFF) to plant 50,000 trees.” You can donate at swa.is/treeplanting.
Etihad Airways and Boeing announced a first-of-its-kind “eco partnership,” back in 2019. The new Etihad Boeing 787 Dreamliner was delivered in January 2020 and is being used to test products, procedures and initiatives designed to reduce aircraft carbon emissions. The delivery flight used biofuel that cut emissions by 30%.
Among its early missions? A special “eco flight” from Abu Dhabi to Brussels during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week in January 2020.
At a press conference in 2019, Etihad CEO Tony Douglas highlighted how new and comparatively fuel-efficient their fleet is. He said the average age of an Etihad plane is 16, making it one of the younger big carriers: “We’re like a millennial and like all good millennials, they’re really focused on the environment and the sustainability agenda.”
Etihad is also building a massive addition to what it calls its “Eco-Residence,” a sustainable apartment complex for the airline’s cabin crews that opened in 2017.
Other international carriers
Malaysia Airlines tells TPG, in 2021 they set new climate goals which include “a target to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – a goal set with Oneworld alliance partners – and also a commitment to work towards bringing several aspects of the business up to industry-leading standards in line with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.”
Lufthansa has already started using Neste’s sustainable aviation fuel, blended with fossil jet fuel on flights departing from Frankfurt. The two companies have been partners on environmental efforts since 2011.
Carbon offsetting has become a focus for airlines around the world, but particularly those based in Europe. Air France, British Airways, Emirates and Qantas, among others have enacted plans to offset the environmental effects of their flights with carbon purchases and other efforts.
We wrote about EasyJet’s efforts in November 2019. The low-cost carrier claims it is the world’s first major airline to operate net-zero carbon flights across its network. In addition to carbon offsetting its flights, EasyJet said it’s also signed a deal with Airbus to join a research project on hybrid and electric aircraft.
Air France is vowing to make all its domestic flights carbon-neutral. In fact, it said it is offsetting 100 percent of the carbon emissions on all of its domestic flights as of 2020.
British Airways also said it was carbon-neutral as of 2020, at least within the U.K. It began purchasing carbon offsets on Jan. 1, 2020.
IHG is launching a program it calls “Journey to tomorrow,” with several commitments on the environment. The company is setting a target of reducing its emissions by 2030 by between 15 and 46%, depending on the property. The chain behind Kimpton and Holiday Inn is also pledging all its new-built hotels will operate at very low or zero carbon emissions. The chain is also working on eliminating single-use items and moving to reusables and recyclables.
For Earth Day 2021, IHG is urging people to get involved in picking up litter and doing other environmentally-friendly projects. “Great Global Clean Up” has provided an interactive map to encourage individuals and groups to get involved. Guests and locals who head out on the global clean-up with IHG are encouraged to share their photos using #IHGJourneytoTomorrow and #RestoretheEarth.
The hotel chain behind brands like Kimpton and Holiday Inn tells TPG it conducted a survey that found younger travelers are especially sensitive to environmental issues. IHG also found:
- 53% of adults agree the pandemic has made them more socially and environmentally conscious about their impact on the world when traveling
- 82% of adults say it is important to choose a hotel brand that operates responsibly (consumers saying they will spend an average of 31% more on accommodation they know operates responsibly)
IHG has also teamed up with a technology company called Winnow Vision to reduce hotel food waste by 30% over the next few years. Finally, IHG plans to eliminate all plastic bottles by 2021.
IHG CEO Keith Barr said, “Journey to Tomorrow embodies IHG’s strengthened commitment to make sure we do what’s right, not just what’s needed. We want every IHG stakeholder to see that we’re on a journey to be successful in every sense of the word, and we are determined to contribute towards positive social and economic change, to stand up for key issues such as diversity, equity and inclusion, and human rights, and to make more responsible environmental choices.
“I believe that how we grow as a company and work to be a greater force for good are inextricably linked. So, we are empowering our colleagues, and working together with our hotel owners and our industry to help shape the future of responsible travel. It’s never been more crucial that we do.”
Marriott says, “From design to the guest experience, sustainability is embedded into our business strategy.” The hotel conglomerate said it is building energy-efficient hotels, using renewable energy wherever possible and trying to find new ways to reduce waste and carbon emissions. The goal set by the company is to reduce water use by 15% and waste by 45% and to use at least 30% renewable energy by 2025.
All the major hotel chains, including Hyatt, Marriott and IHG, are banning single-use plastic shampoo bottles. This saves them money and helps reduce waste, though not everyone is a fan — and single-use bottles could be making a comeback due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Last year Marriott says it avoided using 3.7 million plastic amenity bottles.
Hilton sent an email to all its members in April 2021 saying it was planning on cutting its environmental footprint in half by 2030. Hilton says it has already achieved environmental certifications at all of its hotels globally.
Kate Mikesell, vice president of global corporate responsibility, at Hilton told TPG, “Hilton has been named the global industry leader in sustainability by the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices (DJSI), the most prestigious ranking for corporate responsibility and sustainability performance, for the last two years running.”
Mikesell said, “Now more than ever, we are committed to our leadership in environmental, social and governance so the communities we serve can remain vibrant for generations of travelers yet to come.”
Hilton pointed us to the new Hilton Garden Inn Faroe Islands, “The roof of the hotel is covered in grass, allowing for ultra-efficient insulation and a building that seamlessly blends into the local environment. Inside, ultra-efficient heating systems, including under-floor heating, help keep guests warm and take into account occupancy levels to avoid heating unused spaces. Motion sensors on water taps and LED lighting further prevent energy waste. The hotel is powered by renewable energy from a local power plant that captures leftover energy from a range of industries.”
Hilton says that over the past 12 years, it has reduced its carbon emissions by more than 40%, energy usage by more than 40%, water use by more than 40% and waste by more than 60%. “As a global business, we see the impacts of climate change every day,” the company said. “From hurricanes to droughts, wildfires to floods, our Team Members and guests are facing an increasing number of extreme weather events and natural disasters caused or amplified by global climate change.”
The chain is also committed to bringing its properties in line with the carbon reductions stipulated in the Paris Climate Agreement.
One example is the Grand Wailea — a Waldorf Astoria resort in Maui — where the company built a photovoltaic solar array. The 1.5-megawatt solar array is the largest on Maui and is reducing carbon emissions by providing clean, renewable energy to the hotel. (You can see some of the solar panels in the image above.) The resort is also moving to zero-waste kitchen facilities.
Hyatt Hotels told TPG it is committed to United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and would be released a new set of long-term environmental goals later this year, building on Hyatt’s ongoing efforts related to climate change, water stewardship, waste, and sourcing.
Marié Fukudome is the Director of Environmental Affairs at Hyatt. She said, “As a global company operating in an era of unprecedented climate change, we embrace our responsibility to be a positive environmental steward.” Fukudome continued, “Our focus remains on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, minimizing food waste, and addressing single-use plastics waste, but Hyatt hotels are always listening to the needs of guests and customers to ensure their sustainability requests are heard and implemented where possible.”
Hyatt announced it was ditching all plastic amenity bottles in June 2019 and has ordered all of its hotels to institute the new policy as soon as possible with an absolute deadline of summer 2021.
Many of Hyatt’s new hotels are built to high environmental standards, including the new Grand Hyatt at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which is a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold Certified Project.
“Grand Hyatt at SFO’s operations reflect the sustainability missions of both Hyatt and the San Francisco Airport Commission,” the company said. “SFO has set a goal to become the world’s first Zero Net Energy (ZNE) airport campus by 2021, and the property is in line with this goal with a ZNE capable design. Grand Hyatt at SFO is 26% more energy efficient than a baseline hotel, identified by LEED, and the property generates 133,000 kWh of energy annually with roof-mounted photovoltaic panels.”
TPG’s Summer Hull recently reviewed the new airport hotel and gave it a big thumbs up.
Hyatt also points out the Grand Hyatt Jakarta is the first hotel in Indonesia to install solar panels, and also received recognition from the Indonesian government for its environmental stewardship efforts.
Ride-sharing company Uber has promised to become a zero-emission mobility platform by 2040, “with 100% of rides taking place in zero-emission vehicles, on public transit, or with micromobility.”
The company says hundreds of thousands of drivers will transition to electric vehicles (EVs) through their Green Future program by 2025. In fact, Uber has committed $800 million in resources to help hundreds of thousands of drivers convert to electric cars and SUVs. It says by 2030, it will be operating as a zero-emission mobility platform in Canada, Europe, and the United States.
Already the company offers the option of Uber Green in some cities. Uber says, “.. you tap a button and request a ride in an electric or hybrid vehicle in select cities around the world. Each Uber Green trip in a hybrid or electric vehicle emits at least 25% less carbon emissions compared to the average Uber ride.”
Back in September, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said, “.. carbon emissions will return to “normal” soon. When two-thirds of the world’s population was under lockdown in early April, carbon emissions fell 17% compared to last year. By June, the drop was only 5%. And the fires that continue to rage across our home state of California are a sobering reminder of the urgency of the climate crisis.”
Lyft, too, has promised to convert all its drivers to electric vehicles with an aggressive goal of 2030 saying, “The shift to 100% electric vehicles (EVs) for Lyft will mean transitioning all vehicles used on the Lyft platform over the next ten years to all-electric or other zero-emission technologies.”
Back in June, the company said:
“The challenges we face today, from the global climate crisis that is ravaging our planet, to the global pandemic that is ravaging our lives, to the global rage at injustice that is ravaging our communities, remind us at once that we are human, and humans make choices.”
Back in 2018, Lyft went all carbon neutral mostly through carbon offset purchases.
“Now more than ever, we need to work together to create cleaner, healthier, and more equitable communities,” said John Zimmer, co-founder and president, Lyft.
Here’s what you, and WE, can do
Flying produces a lot of carbon pollution. One option to reduce your personal carbon footprint is to compensate for the carbon emissions from your travel by purchasing carbon offsets. A number of U.S. and international airlines and travel companies make it easy to do that directly on their websites (like Delta), or you can purchase them on your own. In many cases, you’ll spend less than $10 to offset even the longest domestic flights.
Some carriers offer points and miles as incentives for travelers willing to help save the earth. Qantas is offering frequent flyers 10 points for every Australian dollar spent on reducing their carbon footprint — the highest standard earn rate on any Qantas frequent-flyer initiative. Customers responded enthusiastically, some earning more than a million points within the first month alone from flying carbon-neutral, which resulted in a 15% rise in carbon offsets.
TPG is getting in on the act too. We are working to minimize the impact from all our company travel.
“Sustainability has taken a major backseat to ‘safety’ in the age of COVID,” said TPG Executive Editor Scott Mayerowitz. “In 2019, we saw travel companies racing to eliminate single-use plastics, like straws or wrapping business-class blankets in plastic. That effort disappeared during the pandemic. As the pandemic abates, I hope environmental issues will return to the forefront.”
Indeed, at TPG, we are very mindful of our own impact on the environment, Mayerowitz continued:
“We’ve been mitigating our staff travel with carbon offsets. But we know that isn’t enough. When we moved into a new office, pre-pandemic, we replaced wasteful takeout with catering and use hand-washed dishes instead of paper products. We also have a powerful voice in the travel industry and plan to use it to highlight the growing challenges we face around climate change and what impact we, as travelers, have on the planet. Travel and sustainability can coexist but only through a concerted global effort.”
What else can you, the consumer, do? You can walk and bike as much as possible, instead of driving. You can use a ride-sharing service like Lyft, which says all its rides are carbon-neutral.
Recycle and reuse whenever possible. Buying an electric car could help put a dent in air pollution. Scientists also encourage folks to choose renewable energy whenever possible, consider solar panels and make sure their house is energy-efficient.
Additional reporting by Zach Honig, Katie Genter and Katherine Fan.
Featured image of Etihad’s Boeing 787 “Greenliner” courtesy of Etihad.
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