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United Airlines opens up doors to Carbon Capture Technology


United Airlines had pledged in 2018 to cut its net greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. It has already invested $30 million in Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), but buying carbon offsets alone is not enough to reduce the speed of climate change. Hence, it recently adopted a measure that will help the company meet its carbon neutrality goal - an investment in Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology. The investment is in 1PointFive, which is using a licensed technology in the first DAC plant in the United States.

According to the airline, one of the ways to negate aircraft emissions is to capture millions, and potentially billions of tonnes of CO2 per year using DAC technology. The company 1PointFive is expecting to capture and permanently seize one million tonnes of CO2 each year. However, it is important to note that this is a very small part of the 34 million tonnes of CO2 emitted by United in 2019. On the other hand, although one million tonnes is equivalent to the work of 40 million trees, the company’s DAC plant is covering a land area of around 3,000 times less. The captured CO2 will be stored underground in geological formations. The exact location for the plant is still unknown, except that it is in Texas Permian Basin, with a land footprint of around 100 acres (40 hectares). As per recent reports, the plant was in the design and development phase in August 2020, with the final front-end engineering design slated to begin in the first quarter of 2021 and construction expected to start in 2022.

While practically any environmentally-focused action by an airline is commendable, there are some questions about the feasibility of the use of DAC technology for the entire aviation industry.

The holding pillar of the DAC technology is the sequestering of the captured carbon into geological reservoirs, however, a very limited number of sites in the world exist (approx. 20) to sequester the carbon. Also, the application of this method requires a significant investment. Some agencies see this as a risky solution which might be considered as a last resort. Even some environmental NGOs have regarded the process as a “False Solution” due to risks related to the stored CO2 leakage, the increase in demand of energy requirements to deploy capture and storage technology, and also the rationalization of emissions which come with the increase in energy requirements.

Relevant Articles:

United Airlines commits to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 through carbon capture technology investment (GreenAir Online)

United Airlines invests in carbon-capture project to be 100% green by 2050 (Reuters)
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