GBTA: How the Airline Industry Can Tackle Climate Change and Drive Sustainability

As part of its Collaboratory 2020 webinar series, the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) welcomed Lauren Riley, managing director of global environmental affairs and sustainability for United Airlines, to discuss implementing strategies and practices that produce tangible sustainability results, and why this pandemic provides an important opportunity for this work.

“Now more than ever consumers are being thoughtful when they fly about the environmental impact, and we need to engage with these consumers on how to drive sustainability forward and take responsibility for our industry’s role in carbon emissions,” said Riley, during her discussion with GBTA’s interim executive director Dave Hilfman.

Highlights from their conversation included:

  • Cutting Carbon Emissions Not Just Offsetting  Is Critical: The overwhelming majority of airline carbon emissions comes from the use of conventional jet fuel. While carbon offsets have been an attractive offering in the airline industry for years, truer sustainability will also come from airlines shifting to alternative fuel sources, like sustainable aviation fuel that is less carbon-intensive than traditional petroleum-based fuel.
  • Global Advances Continue to Be Made: In 2009, the global travel industry came together and agreed on three incremental goals that became policy under the United Nations. The first, to increase fuel efficiency by 1.5 percent year over year from 2009 to 2020, has been met and exceeded. Airlines continue to work toward the remaining two goals: to cap emissions at the 2019 rate moving forward, and to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2050.
  • Corporate Partnerships Provide a Path to Achieving Sustainability: To accelerate adoption of low-carbon options, United Airlines is piloting a program to engage their corporate partners. United is offering corporate accounts the opportunity to use flight credit to purchase sustainable aviation fuel. This partnership allows United to scale its use of alternative fuels, while their corporate partners can reduce their carbon footprint and achieve their own corporate sustainability goals.
  • There is a Sustainability Silver Lining of the Pandemic: Like in many other organizations, the pandemic has allowed United to think about how it can thrive as a business while bringing its core values to life for customers. “The pandemic has brought to the forefront the discussion of how travel, climate and sustainability intersect, and the role that human activity plays in temperature rise,” said Riley. “Sustainability and decarbonizing aviation are central to United’s mission and the buy-in starts at the top, with CEO Scott Kirby, who is very passionate about sustainability.” Added Riley: “At the end of the day, relationships are still about personal interactions, and flying is going to continue. As an industry, we all benefit from working together to accelerate these solutions to tackle emissions in a sustainable way.”

This webinar, “Sustainability – The Clock is Ticking,” sponsored by United Airlines, is one of many being presented by GBTA as part of the Collaboratory 2020 series. For the recording of this session and more information on future webinars, visit

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