Case study: Flying Sustainably with Air Canada
Written By: Lauren Rosenthal
Edited By: Vanessa Lu Langley
With carbon dioxide emissions ringing in at just over 900 million tonnes as of 2019, (Cropley, 2021), the air travel industry is a notable contributor to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Much like other major industries, airlines are making commitments at an increasing pace every year to curb their emissions in an effort to fight climate change, with 43 low- or zero-carbon emissions initiatives announced in 2021 alone (ICAO, 2022). Among them is Air Canada, one of the top 20 largest airlines in the world and the largest in Canada (Air Canada, n.d.). They made waves in 2021 with the announcement of their commitment to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 among a slew of other sustainability goals, joining the likes of United Airlines and British Airways among others (Philip et al., 2021).
Sustainability occupies a prominent role in Air Canada’s public image, with their CEO stating that “economic growth and sustainability are equally important, and [they] have a strong track record for both” (“Air Canada Makes Significant Investment”, 2021). They have been releasing detailed sustainability reports since 2011 that grow in size and ambition every year. Their most recent report, Citizens of the World, describes their 2020 year by structuring it into three pillars: business, people, and planet. Their “planet” pillar addresses sustainability from several angles, including environmental management, carbon emissions reduction, noise reduction, and waste reduction.
Their carbon emissions reduction plan makes up a major component of the “planet” pillar. It consists of four components:
(1) Fleet and operations, which involves retiring energy-inefficient aircrafts and replacing them with modern, more efficient counterparts (2020 CS Report). They also plan to retrofit some aircrafts with winglets to enhance fuel efficiency (CDP, 2021).
(2) Innovation, which is described as staying “actively involved” (more details are not provided) in the development of hybrid and electric aircraft technology (Air Canada, 2021).
(3) Sustainable aviation and clean energy, which consists of a $50M investment in research into low-carbon aviation fuels (LCAFs), carbon reduction/removal, and sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) (Air Canada, 2021). SAFs are renewable or waste-derived aviation fuels that meet international sustainability standards (ICAO, n.d.).
(4) Carbon reductions and removal, which involves offering the purchase of carbon offsets to clients through their Leave Less program and the exploration of carbon-negative technologies (Air Canada, 2021). Air Canada recently announced their partnership with Carbon Engineering, a Canadian clean energy company focused on large-scale carbon capture technology, to advance carbon removal goals in addition to potential SAF development (“Air Canada and Carbon Engineering”, 2021).
These pillars are ongoing, and Air Canada has set interim goals of a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from air operations and a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from ground operations by 2030, with net-zero as the ultimate long-term goal (Air Canada, 2021).These sustainability initiatives have been met with a fair amount of attention from the press (“Air Canada Commits”, 2021; MacGregor, 2021; International Airport Review, 2021) and minimal criticism. They appear to further Air Canada’s pre-existing image as a sustainable airline that has been established by their past efforts, such as the reduction of more than 145,000 tCO2e from its air operations since 2016 (International Airport Review, 2021), and corroborated by awards that it has received, such as the 2018 Best Sustainability Contribution Award and 2018 Eco-Airline of the Year (Air Canada, 2020). Although many of their more ambitious plans are in early stages of execution, their commitment appears genuine and backed by their track record.
Beyond commitment, however, feasibility is still a key question, as it is with any airline’s decarbonisation and sustainability plans. Aviation is notoriously one of the hardest industries to decarbonize because of the high costs involved in doing so. SAFs tend to be the most talked about strategy because of their potential to cut 80% of emissions relative to traditional jet kerosene. However, they are still prohibitively expensive and are in need of a lot of investment before they become economically viable (The Goldman Sachs Group, 2020). In Air Canada’s defense, they have executed eight biofuel flights in the past and are heavily investing in research (Air Canada, 2021) demonstrating clear commitment to making progress in this area. However, whether SAFs will become truly viable in the next thirty years remains uncertain. Much of the same can be said about Air Canada’s carbon capture plans, as very few details are available as to how it will be done. The carbon capture industry is in its relative infancy, with costs still very high and many outstanding questions about the nuts and bolts of capture operations (Gonzalez et al., 2020). So, relying on it to significantly bolster chances of reaching net-zero feels premature.
Fleet renewal, as Air Canada has begun doing, is guaranteed to be one of the more attainable components of Air Canada’s strategy, as it is on the cheap end in terms of abatement strategies and is therefore economically viable in the short term. Since newer aircrafts tend to burn 15%-20% less fuel than their older counterparts, this appears to be a surefire way to cut emissions (The Goldman Sachs Group, 2020). However, rapidly rising middle class-demand for flying may pose a problem, since many of the improvements in efficiency are incremental and may be outpaced by increases in demand (Timperley, 2021) thus ultimately netting positive emissions.
Finally, carbon offsets, which are to play a major role in both Air Canada’s net-zero path and in that of airlines around the world (The Goldman Sachs Group, 2020), are highly dependent on the way in which they are executed. They are a highly contentious issue (Irfan, 2020; Greenpeace, 2020) due to concerns about keeping an accurate inventory of reduced emissions and ensuring that the offset projects are permanently and properly maintained (more details here). Less Emissions, the offsetting company with whom Air Canada is partnered for their Leave Less program, cites investment into “the highest quality offsets available internationally and in Canada”, and willingly provides validation and verification reports for each of their projects (“Less Projects”, 2022). It therefore appears as though there is little cause for concern, but only time will tell as carbon offsets grow in popularity and the projects grow in visibility to the public.
Ultimately, Air Canada’s success will depend on both on how the technology on which it relies evolves over time and how big of a role each component plays in their plan, as a plan heavily reliant on fleet modernization is more concrete than one that hinges on capture capture. However, they have demonstrated a very clear willingness to make the effort to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and reach net-zero, and appear to be putting their money where their mouth is. Only time will tell as to whether it is enough.
Air Canada. (n.d.). About Air Canada. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.aircanada.com/ca/en/aco/home/about.html#/
Air Canada. (2020). Air Canada Awards. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.aircanada.com/ca/en/aco/home/about/media/awards.html#/
Air Canada. (2021). Citizens of the World 2020. https://www.aircanada.com/content/dam/aircanada/portal/documents/PDF/en/corporate-sustainability/2020-cs-report.pdf
Air Canada and Carbon Engineering Sign MoU to Explore Commercial Opportunities for Sustainable Aviation Fuel, Carbon Removal and Decarbonization Technology. (2021). Air Canada. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://aircanada.mediaroom.com/2021-11-10-Air-Canada-and-Carbon-Engineering-Sign-MoU-to-Explore-Commercial-Opportunities-for-Sustainable-Aviation-Fuel,-Carbon-Removal-and-Decarbonization-Technology
Air Canada Commits to Ambitious Net Zero Emissions Goal by 2050. (2021, March 15). Cision. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/air-canada-commits-to-ambitious-net-zero-emissions-goal-by-2050-853464854.html
Air Canada makes significant investment in SAF technology. (2021, March 16). Biofuels International. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://biofuels-news.com/news/air-canada-makes-significant-investment-in-saf-technology/
CDP. (2021). Air Canada - Climate Change 2021. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.cdp.net/en/formatted_responses/responses?campaign_id=74241094&discloser_id=897937&locale=en&organization_name=Air+Canada&organization_number=427&program=Investor&project_year=2021&redirect=https%3A%2F%2Fcdp.credit360.com%2Fsurveys%2F2021%2Fdbbr64mv%2F145394&survey_id=73557641
Cropley, E. (2021, November 1). Airlines’ net-zero pledges fly on fumes. Reuters. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.reuters.com/breakingviews/airlines-net-zero-pledges-fly-fumes-2021-11-01/
Gonzales, V., Krupnick, A., & Dunlap, L. (2020, May 6). Carbon Capture and Storage 101. Resources for the Future. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://www.rff.org/publications/explainers/carbon-capture-and-storage-101/
Greenpeace. (2020). The biggest problem with carbon offsetting is that it doesn’t really work. Greenpeace. Retrieved October 13, 2021, from https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/the-biggest-problem-with-carbon-offsetting-is-that-it-doesnt-really-work/
ICAO. (n.d.). Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). ICAO Environment. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.icao.int/environmental-protection/pages/SAF.aspx
ICAO. (2022). Aviation Net Zero Initiatives and Commitments. ICAO Environment. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.icao.int/environmental-protection/SAC/Pages/Aviation-net-zero.aspx
International Airport Review. (2021, October 22). Air Canada launches its new LEAVE LESS Travel Programme. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.internationalairportreview.com/news/167390/air-canada-launches-new-leave-less-travel-programme/
Irfan, U. (2020). Can you really negate your carbon emissions? Carbon offsets, explained. Vox. Retrieved October 13, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/2020/2/27/20994118/carbon-offset-climate-change-net-zero-neutral-emissions
Less Projects. (2022). Less Emissions. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.less.ca/en-ca/projects_ac.cfm
MacGregor, S. (2021, March 25). Canada’s Largest Airline Commits To Net Zero Emissions Goal By 2050. Forbes. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/sandramacgregor/2021/03/25/canadas-largest-airline-commits-to-net-zero-emissions-goal-by-2050/?sh=2670673d1c98
Philip, S. V., Schlangenstein, M., & Jasper, C. (2021, October 4). Airline Industry Targets Net-Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050. Bloomberg Green. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-10-04/airline-industry-targets-net-zero-carbon-emissions-by-2050
The Goldman Sachs Group. (2020, November). Carbonomics: 10 Key Themes from the Inagural Conference. Goldman Sachs. https://www.goldmansachs.com/insights/pages/gs-research/carbonomics-10-key-themes-from-the-inaugural-conference-f/report.pdf
Timperley, J. (2021, September 5). The six problems aviation must fix to hit net zero. The Guardian. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/05/the-six-problems-aviation-must-fix-to-hit-net-zero