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Delta And BP Pledge To Go Carbon-Neutral. How? That's The Question

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Delta Airlines says it's going carbon neutral. How does a company that flies huge, belching, carbon-emitting airplanes do that? The oil and gas company BP has also promised to be carbon neutral by 2050, even after it extracts fossil fuels from the ground. So how does that work? Camila Domonoske covers cars and energy for NPR's Business Desk and joins us in our studios. Camila, thanks so much for being with us.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Yeah, happy to be here.

SIMON: So how does an airline go carbon neutral?

DOMONOSKE: Well, hypothetically, you could imagine a future where they actually use a different kind of fuel instead of jet fuel - maybe biofuels. We don't live in that world, right? Right now you run an airplane - it is running off of an oil-based product. So what you do is you make the plane as efficient as possible. And then you suck carbon out of the air to balance out the emissions that you do create.

SIMON: How?

DOMONOSKE: That's the billion-dollar question - literally, as in, Delta is going to spend a billion dollars answering that question. But there's basically two main strategies. One is natural. If you plant forests or restore wetlands or, you know, various kinds of landscapes that can store carbon, you can actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere and effectively reverse some of the effects of emissions. There's also a high-tech method. We do actually have technology that can suck carbon dioxide out of the air. You set up a machine that pulls in air, sucks out the carbon dioxide, releases the rest of the air back out. It's extremely expensive. And it only works currently at a small scale. But those are basically the two prongs of the methods.

SIMON: And how does BP, an energy company, go carbon neutral?

DOMONOSKE: One fundamental element here would be a shift in business practices. So if instead of being an oil and gas company, they were an energy company, and the energy they sold was renewable - think solar and wind - then you can see this becoming a different kind of company that is indeed carbon neutral. There's also the possibility that they would continue to work more or less as they do now and have carbon offsets, carbon capture, just like Delta is talking about.

SIMON: How seriously do you take a pledge like this?

DOMONOSKE: Well, first of all, it's a pledge. It's a goal. So follow-through is extremely important. Everyone agrees that. Companies have set lots of targets before that they didn't meet. So that's the first very large caveat. The second is that this carbon capture element is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's really important. Scientists agree that to actually meaningfully stop climate change, we are going to have to have a way to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But a lot of activists worry that focusing on carbon capture can kind of be a cover for a company. So you imagine if BP continues to invest in new oil and gas operations and says, it's OK - we're just going to cancel it out - that's not going to be the kind of dramatic reduction in emissions that scientists say is needed for any meaningful action here.

SIMON: Camila, do you foresee more pledges like this from major corporations?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. I don't normally predict the future. But this one I do feel pretty confident about. There's been a huge spike in these recently. You can actually quantify more companies have targets. Those targets are more ambitious. So companies feel pressure from their competition, from their investors, in some cases, interestingly, from their own employees. It's also getting much cheaper to buy renewable energy. So making these pledges isn't as big of an ask as it used to be. And the bar is getting raised in some ways. Microsoft and IKEA don't have carbon-neutral targets. They're both pledging to go carbon negative and pull more carbon out of the atmosphere than they emit total.

SIMON: Camila Domonoske covers cars and energy for NPR's Business Desk. Thanks so much for being with us.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.