The airline industry has committed to curbing emissions growth to zero by the end of 2020. That’s no small task. Emissions from the sector are rising rapidly.

The International Civil Aviation Organization anticipates that in 2020, global international aviation emissions will be 70 percent greater than in 2005. Last year flights worldwide produced 895 million tons of CO2 in total. And despite impressive improvements in the efficiency of new aircraft and the progress in certifying new types of renewable jet fuels (five thus far), the aviation sector burns 10 billion more gallons of polluting conventional jet fuel per year than it did a decade ago. 

To hit their goal of zero emissions growth, airline executives will need to take unprecedented action; they won’t be able to find enough efficiency measures to curb growth to zero. Renewable jet fuels also are not yet available at scale or at the right price. And unlike ground transport, only short-haul jet flights make sense to electrify in the foreseeable future. 

So how, then, can they do it? One answer is for executives to offset their airlines’ emissions through carbon mitigation and sequestration projects.

Offsets? Really?

While offsets are often seen as a cop-out for industries that don’t want to tackle their own pollution, airlines are clearly uniquely limited in their pollution mitigation options. Airlines can eliminate the skepticism and criticism associated with offsets of questionable merit and even more questionable verification by investing in projects right in the communities where their customers and employees live and work. Not only will these projects be visible to airline critics, but they will also directly benefit the people who matter most to airlines. 

While there are a number of ways that airlines can offset their emissions, the lowest-cost option right now is to invest in local farmers. Airlines can pay farmers to effectively absorb airlines’ carbon emissions back into their land through regenerative farming practices. 

Soil itself can hold immense amounts of carbon and is capable of absorbing — through sequestration — more carbon than either oceans or forests. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, for example, it’s estimated that agricultural soils have the potential to “sequester more than 60 times the emissions generated by the aviation sector in 2018.” 

In addition to airlines, many large corporations have been making bold climate commitments. Many corporations have committed to 100 percent renewable electricity, energy productivity, net-zero waste and have signed up to electrify their vehicles. But air travel remains an essential part of international business. Offsetting those emissions through direct investments into local farms and communities would unlock a multitude of benefits. 

It’s estimated that over the last few centuries, at least 50 percent of the earth’s soil carbon has been released into the atmosphere. Yet by restoring carbon-rich organic matter in soils, evidence suggests that regenerative agricultural practices (including the use of cover crops and compost) can render farms more resilient to the effects of climate change, thus reducing the damage caused by the ravages of climate change and helping to safeguard our food supply. In the case of farms that grow food and energy crops, they could also be enhancing the productivity for renewable jet fuel supplies.

Soils rich in organic matter are able to infiltrate and hold more water, reducing the costs and risks of both flooding and drought. Healthier soils can result in healthier crops and ultimately healthier people. And healthier crops can lead to more viable farms — which, of course, increases food security and can improve the livelihoods of farmers and rural communities broadly. 

In fact, we’re already seeing this play out. Farms where regenerative practices are employed are seeing soil carbon levels rise, sometimes dramatically.

A lack of available alternatives

Airline executives should be persuaded to invest in carbon sequestration due to the emissions-reduction potential alone. But in addition to providing an effective means of hitting their goal of zero emissions growth starting in 2020, partnering with farmers on carbon sequestration also promises airline execs a boost to their public image. They’d be combating climate change, living up to their promises and helping farmers and communities across the world. 

Who doesn’t love that story? 

Airlines are often cited as one of the most intensely disliked industries in the world. The new social phenomenon of “flight-shaming” is already reducing airline business in Scandinavia and could catch on in other parts of the world. So emerging as a key player in the fight against climate change — as well as a champion of the farming community — could help airlines maintain their social license to operate.

In an ideal world, we would have a national climate policy and a national marketplace for these carbon offsets that airlines could buy into. 

But in the meantime, it’s incumbent on airlines — should they intend to honor their commitment to zero emissions growth — to act on their own and form these partnerships independently. In sending the signal that they are interested in impactful offsetting, airlines can also help drive improvements to existing offsetting frameworks or support the development of new ones, in order to provide the rigor and transparency that can enhance public trust.

The best way to start is by partnering directly with farmers in the regions airlines serve. 

More specifically, airlines should focus their partnerships around carbon sequestration through soil restoration, and they should start in states where they have hubs — where their employees live and whose communities they directly impact. Doing so collectively and seriously would go a long way toward benefiting those communities as well as lowering emissions. 

But helping farmers rehabilitate soil is only one mechanism available to airlines in this necessarily ongoing effort to reduce emissions and help the environment. They could also invest in projects to clean up the air and improve environmental quality around airports, for example, or pay for solar panels and batteries for their employees’ homes, which would essentially create distributed power plants around the world.

By planting trees in parks and installing solar panels over airport parking lots, airline execs could simultaneously improve air quality, enhance customer and employee satisfaction, rehabilitate their public image, enhance food security and reduce their emissions all at the same time. 

All of this progress should start, though, with carbon sequestration partnerships between airlines and farmers. Considering the lack of available alternatives, airline executives would be wise to get moving on this now. 2020 is right around the corner.


Suzanne Hunt is president of Hunt Green. Jigar Shah is co-founder and president at Generate Capital.