Delta Sustainability Chief Discusses Cutting Airline's Footprint and Shift Away From Offsets – The Wall Street Journal

Delta Sustainability Chief Discusses Cutting Airline's Footprint and Shift Away From Offsets – The Wall Street Journal yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7

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Like many large companies, Delta Air Lines has promised to cut the net emissions across its entire value chain to zero by 2050. Unlike most other sectors where companies’ carbon footprint primarily comes from their suppliers and customers, airlines’ biggest source of emissions usually comes from their own use of jet fuel, which is typically their biggest cost as well.
Delta recently appointed company veteran Amelia DeLuca as its chief sustainability officer. The math graduate joined the company straight after college, seeing a place to use her problem-solving skills while fulfilling her desire to live and work overseas. 
DeLuca talked to WSJ Pro about Delta’s multistage approach to cutting its footprint, why the anti-ESG movement doesn’t make sense for an airline, and how she is thinking about carbon offsets and this year’s United Nations’ COP climate conference.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

WSJ Pro: Where were you in December 2015 when the Paris climate accord was signed?
DeLuca: I was leading our trans-Atlantic network planning team. I wasn’t in sustainability yet. I think it was still an ‘Aha!’ moment for me because I already kind of realized in my core that global collaboration is needed to make true change.
WSJ Pro: Did you have a green epiphany? 
DeLuca: I was driving with my two girls listening to this kids’ science podcast. It talked about climate change and ended by discussing how in 2100, when climate change has been largely solved, that it’s going to be the kids that are listening to the podcast today, and maybe their kids, who are going to be the ones who have solved it. That gave me clarity of what my role is: that we’ve got to get a running start on this. 
WSJ Pro: What would you advise a student to study?
DeLuca: Study something you love and something that feels challenging. It helps you exercise your brain and with that comes your ability to be able to solve really hard problems using critical thinking, because climate change is going to be solved by smart people across all industries.
WSJ Pro: What is your favorite sustainable product that isn’t from your company?
DeLuca: There’s a great company in Atlanta called CompostNow. They’ve been scaling throughout the Southern U.S. It really works for urban composting; you’re still able to participate even if you live in an apartment.
WSJ Pro: Aside from flying, what is the most carbon-heavy thing that you do that you just can’t kick?
DeLuca: Air conditioning. Living in Atlanta, it would just be very hard to live without it. But I lived for three years in the Netherlands and also for three years in Mexico City. Neither place had air conditioning. So I’ve been on both sides of this. 
WSJ Pro: What are the most important sustainability developments in the past two years?
DeLuca: A lot more people are talking about these issues, which is really positive, and the Inflation Reduction Act was an incredibly important milestone for the United States. But it feels like that optimism is being outpaced by a summer of unprecedented weather patterns, climate disasters. These real-life impacts continue to be the rallying cry that we need to be working together. 
WSJ Pro: What are your hopes or expectations for this year’s United Nations COP climate summit?
DeLuca: What I like about the COP is that all voices are at the table. From the business perspective. Everyone is there for the same reason and you’re spending from dawn till dusk having conversations. Action is really important, but we do occasionally have to pause and really talk about it, to listen to each other and to challenge each other to do more. 
Two years ago, the net-zero commitments were made. Now, it’s becoming a business imperative and the conversation is really: How are you building this into your business? How are you making this economically viable? Only through having conversations with my peers can I better understand how to prepare Delta for the future.  
WSJ Pro: What are the big sustainability themes coming up?
DeLuca: Continued partnership and collaboration and reframing our problems, looking at them from different angles as you bring new collaborators to the table. Another one is all things DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] and social justice. I’ve cared about them for years. It’s something you’re going to hear more of in the future: Sustainability is not just environmental; it is also social, and we’ve got to keep both of those things in balance as we proceed.
WSJ Pro: What do you think about the anti-ESG movement and how does it affect what you do?
DeLuca: We are tackling jet fuel—that is where our carbon emissions come from. And so, for us, the anti-ESG rhetoric doesn’t really make a lot of sense, because what we’re doing is tackling our single largest cost driver that is incredibly volatile. If we can move into a future where that cost is not coming from a finite resource, i.e., fossil fuels, and it’s moving into renewable resources, not only are we going to bring our costs down but we’re also going to create more stability within a typically more volatile industry when it comes to profitability. 
WSJ Pro: What is Delta’s part in building a sustainable future?
DeLuca: One of our main imperatives is eliminating our carbon footprint from flying, changing how we fly so that we are no longer contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, and almost all of that comes from our jet fuel usage. We are a loud and strong voice and we try to use it positively through forums and partnerships. 
Where our [onboard] products are coming from and going to is probably the most relatable item right now for the average consumer. I think that’s going to expand as consumers continue to understand their impact from travel and want to be able to travel in a more sustainable way.
WSJ Pro: What challenges or hurdles to your sustainability plans worry you? 
DeLuca: When we think about moving the world to a more sustainable future of travel, sustainable aviation fuel will be part of the equation and it will be the most important lever that we’re going to pull. And I say pull, but really, we’re creating the lever first. We’ve made incredible progress, but sustainable aviation fuel isn’t scaling fast enough. 
There’s been some really important milestones: the Inflation Reduction Act, a number of offtake agreements where airlines are committing to purchase future sustainable aviation fuel when it’s created; government loan programs; and many conversations about SAF through collaboration. But no one’s really been able to figure out why or how to scale it faster. 
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WSJ Pro: There’s been a lot of talk about hydrogen planes. Does this figure into your plans?
DeLuca: We do believe SAF is going to be the single biggest lever. But it is the medium-term solution because it’s going to take time to scale. Today, there’s an immense amount that Delta can do to save fuel. Our carbon council has leadership from across the company focused on our operational side aiming to save 10 million gallons of jet fuel every single year. 
We also look at some partnerships. Airbus is exploring a hydrogen solution that they potentially bring onto the market from 2035. Through that partnership, we’ve learned a lot about the potential for hydrogen as a combustion solution as well as an upstream part of SAF. We’ve also got a new relationship with Boeing studying a new type of wing that would reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency. Right now, we’re really looking at all options because I think all will ultimately be part of the net-zero solution.
WSJ Pro: How do carbon offsets fit into what you’re doing at Delta?
DeLuca: As of March 31, 2022, we shifted away from investing in offsets and instead we are focusing on all the levers that we can pull to decarbonize our own operations. There is a discussion under way right now via the science-based target initiative that will give guidance to all companies on the role of offsets. But until we have that guidance, you will not see anything within our own decarbonization journey that references offsets as part of the strategy.
WSJ Pro: Do you have any best practices that you would highlight for other CSOs?
DeLuca: There’s two challenges to being a sustainability professional today. The first is just keeping up with it. As a sustainability leader, make sure you’re surrounding yourself with a lot of people that know a lot about this space that you can call on when you get stumped. The second thing is really trying to understand how you connect your sustainability agenda to everyone throughout your company. We’ve been doing a lot of listening to our employees to understand how they connect to sustainability and with that we’re constantly recalibrating and making sure that we’re allowing our employees to not only understand what we’re doing but to be part of the change.

Sources: Delta Air Lines 2022 ESG report and 2022 Form 10-K
Write to Rochelle Toplensky at

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