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10 things we’ve learned from United Airlines CSO Lauren Riley

Gov Kandola, who heads up our Transport & Logistics team, spoke to Lauren for the Venari Podcast’s Sustainability Series


Lauren Riley, Chief Sustainability Officer at United Airlines, admits that aviation is hard to abate. It means ‘we don’t have the solutions at scale commercially available to make a difference right now.’ But that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless – anything but, in fact. For Lauren, the appeal of a sustainability role in her sector comes down to there being ‘no shortage of solutions,’ in contrast to other hard-to-abate industries, ‘so it’s multi-functional, really dynamic [...] opportunity is everywhere.’ There is plenty of work to do – but Lauren is more than up for the challenge. ‘I’m in a space where I believe I can drive change and I’m proud of that.’

Gov Kandola, who leads our Transport & Logistics practice, spoke to Lauren Riley on this episode of the Venari Podcast’s Sustainability Series. But what did we learn from their conversation?


United was the first airline to commit to net zero without carbon offsets

Net zero by 2050 is an ambitious goal for which many companies in the aviation industry have signed up. However, did you know that United was the first carrier to commit to the initiative without relying on traditional carbon offsets, like planting trees or voluntary offsets?


Lauren notes that it was a decision based on principle. ‘It wasn’t simply transacting and funding what could be good projects outside our supply chain, but we just have so much work to do within our operations that we didn’t want to be distracted,’ she notes. ‘It was really a statement on focus, our statement on where we’re going to drive change, and that’s really around the emissions from flight.’


SAF costs at least 2-4 times more than jet fuel

Unsurprisingly, 98% of United’s greenhouse gas emissions come from jet fuel, so it makes sense that this is the primary area of focus for their efforts. While sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is frequently held up as a solution, unfortunately global production is nowhere near enough at present for it to viably replace jet fuel. As such, it’s much more expensive than traditional jet fuel – at least 2-4 times more so, ‘and that’s just a U.S. perspective,’ Lauren explains. ‘Overseas it’s a lot more, and we need to figure out how to pay for it.’


United are looking into ways to stop carbon

Thankfully, United are working on a number of ways to make SAF more affordable. ‘A couple of years ago, we introduced the Eco-Skies Alliance,’ Lauren says. ‘That’s a partnership with our corporate customers to help fund that premium’ between green and conventional jet fuels. A number of corporate companies, including shippers, for example, have been following this development with interest ‘because they actually want to travel or ship their goods low-carbon on United flights. So, it’s a win-win.’ Managing Scope 1 emissions is increasingly important for organisations looking to get serious about net zero – as is sending what Lauren calls ‘demand signals’ for change.


United have set up their own SAF venture  

The airline’s good work doesn’t stop with the Eco-Skies Alliance. Last year, they established the Sustainable Flight Fund, a venture capacity for boosting SAF production. ‘We have 14 investors that have joined United to invest in early-stage startup companies that look at either producing SAF or the technologies that enable it,’ Lauren says. ‘We have over $200 million going to these promising companies that are just a couple of years from commercial production. So that’s super exciting.’


25 million gallons of SAF were produced last year

While we want to see this figure increase exponentially, we welcome all steps in the right direction. Not least because...


United consumed over one-fifth of it

...the airline consumed seven million gallons last year – ‘a significant portion of the pie,’ as Lauren puts it. But for a disruption in production, it would have been more, too.


A slow burn at federal level is still encouraging

While Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act has given clean energy a boost, change can be slow in coming. Nonetheless, Lauren is encouraged. ‘If anything, the last two years have really shown people the importance of environmental policy [...] I think there’s a lot of bipartisan support. So, I am optimistic that we’ll get some meaningful policy here soon.’


In fact, it can’t come soon enough...


Less than 1% of jet fuel in the U.S. is sustainable

...when the percentage of green fuel is so low. Lauren admits that it’s predominantly a supply issue; greater production would of course mean an according reduction in cost. ‘That’s why I talk about investment [...] it’s really all about scale at the end of the day.’


Waste companies are essential for tackling the issue

To make sure the industry can ramp up SAF production, it must harness sources you wouldn’t necessarily have thought about in the first instance. Lauren cites the need for ‘companies that can take agricultural waste, forestry waste, municipal solid waste, and convert that into a drop-in jet fuel.’


Electric flight is another area of interest for United

While developing electric flight on a meaningful scale is an even longer-term project than SAF rollout, Lauren nonetheless believes it to be ‘a really promising’ solution. The past few years have certainly seen some fascinating developments for battery-powered air travel – we can’t wait to see what happens next, at United and beyond!


Many thanks to Lauren for sharing such fascinating insights with us!


At Venari Partners, we are passionate about helping companies in the transport and logistics sector to meet their sustainability goals. If you need advice on finding the right executive talent, don’t hesitate to get in touch.


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