Fireside chat Chicago summit 2023

As someone with possibly one of the hardest — and most scrutinised — jobs on the planet right now, Frannie Levar is not afraid of putting her cards on the table.

In her position of sustainability and ESG director for United Airlines, Levar has embraced the mission of taking the company to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Given that the airline operates more than 1.8 million flights per year, resulting in emissions of roughly 42 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (according to its calculations for 2021) — more than 34 million tonnes of which are scope 1 — this is no small undertaking.

We were delighted to be joined by Frannie at Environment Analyst’s Global Business Summit in Chicago this June, in a relaxed, ‘fireside’ chat with our co-founder and chair, Julian Rose — who quizzed her on claims that the airline will meet its decarbonisation goals.

The first tool some might expect to see in an airline’s net zero toolbox is the carbon offset, but this is not United’s approach. Instead Frannie’s team has formulated a plan that eschews carbon offsetting entirely, based on the logic that they would rather focus on what can be controlled than what cannot. Quoting Taylor Swift — "Hey, I’m the problem" — Frannie admitted that the mission is "not going to be easy".

Runways to sustainability

The conversation began with Julian asking about the key pillars of United Airlines’ approach to sustainability. Frannie outlined four pathways that will take the company to their net zero by 2050 goal, via an interim target of 50% of their 2019 carbon intensity by 2035. The foremost of these pathways, she said, is "looking at our own home, how can we reduce the emissions we’re generating through our own operations". The second is pushing technological development, especially regarding new fuels, to realise the net zero ambition, and the third is removing the emissions they cannot reduce by means of in-house changes. The fourth is a culture of collaboration, both with their peers across the industry, and across their full value chain.

An emphasis on owning and taking responsibility for the airline’s own emissions was clear throughout the chat. One motivation for this, Julian observed, is to reduce stakeholder risks, not least given the ongoing greenwashing lawsuit against Delta Airlines, which hinges on the use of offsets. But others include the opportunities to work constructively across the industry, and up and down value chains, to make significant change happen.

United Airlines has made a point of directly supporting the development of technologies that will take it — and other airlines — to net zero. One of the most audacious of these plans, noted Julian, is its support for the development of sustainable aviation fuels

"But how can we ensure there is enough supply?" he asked.

Frannie acknowledged that the global marketplace currently supplies less than 1% of the sustainable aviation fuel needed by airlines today. But she nonetheless sees the technology as "a key lever" for airlines to decarbonise because it does not require changes to existing aircraft and fuelling infrastructure, and is therefore a more practical option than retrofitting all existing aircraft, e.g. by putting in alternative propulsion methods, such as electric or hydrogen, none of which are suitable for long haul flights anyway.

 "Sustainable aviation fuel is the solution that gets us to 2050" ~ Frannie Levar

To supply the entire aviation industry, the insurance arm of United Airlines is investing in early stage, nascent technologies that need funding to take them to scale — second and third generation standalone aviation fuels — while also sending demand signals via colleagues across the value chain. The aim is to drive a market that doesn't yet exist and put into place not only the fuels and the technologies that are needed, but other aspects of the supply chain required to support those technologies. Some of the partnerships United is building, said Frannie, involve other airlines and nine-figure venture funds: "investment mechanisms, looking towards tomorrow".

On collaboration, Frannie said, "It's absolutely critical to recognise we cannot, any of us, realise our climate ambitions in isolation. These forums, these discussions, these opportunities for collaboration, have such significant value, particularly with folks like [those here in the room], who are going to be and are such key partners, and other corporations that need this expertise, objective opinion, counsel, and guidance."

Partnership is critical

Partnership is especially critical, she said, when looking at the value chain, "not just focusing on your scope one, but looking at upstream and downstream". 

"Who are your customers? How can you work with them? What innovative ways can you partner with them? How can you ensure your supply chain is reflective of your own ambitions, your own climate objectives? And then how are you looking beyond your supply through your value chain? How are you looking at your peers in your industry? How are you looking and working with your legislators and the policymakers?" 

But before starting there, it’s essential to bring on board the internal stakeholders. For this, said Frannie, you have to first understand the perspective of who you’re talking to. "What do they care about? Your CFO cares about different priorities than your Chief Commercial Officer does? Yeah, but [also] they're gonna have different focal points. So what are those focal points? What are their priorities? What are their pain points? What are their challenges? And how can you then bring in sustainability such that it's not an opposing objective, it is aligned. Companies need to be adopting sustainability initiatives, because it's good business."

Thought leadership and sanity checks 

The conversation touched on how sustainability used to be the "fun but optional" activity, but now needs to be considered as a compliance obligation, just as EHS used to be (in reference to Frannie’s previous role), with requirements for disclosure, transparency, accuracy, accountability and auditing. Julian also raised the question of non-CO2 impacts of aviation — resulting from oxides of nitrogen for example — which Frannie acknowledged as a trickier area, in which the scientific understanding is still evolving, and therefore harder to include in target setting. 

The exchange closed on a discussion of what makes a good partnership between a consultant and a client — from the client’s point of view.

Consultants, said Frannie, are valuable for a number of reasons. Sometimes a company doesn’t have the time, the capacity, the tools or the materials (or doesn’t feel like they have), to do the work in-house, so it can be advantageous to leverage external expertise. 

"But also," she said (to laughter from the audience), "I might want an objective point of view, a ‘sanity check’, to make sure I haven’t lost my mind, misunderstood the assignment". 

And on top of that, there’s quality assurance, strategic thought partnership and industry intel: "What are you hearing from your networks?".

A true consultant-client partnership, said Frannie, goes beyond just delivering on the task requested, but offers wider insights, a strategic element, and guidance, "to help make sure that we're thinking about things the right way".

Frannie Levar is director, sustainability and ESG, at United Airlines.