Aircraft on the hot seat: Time for the industry to lead us to clearer skies

By Marcie Keever, Oceans and Vessels program director and Kate DeAngelis, international policy analyst

Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of global carbon pollution, accounting for 11 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and rising three to five percent annually. The United States is responsible for nearly half of the world’s CO2 aircraft emissions. Globally airplane operations produced 705 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2013; quadrupling since 1960. Unless major changes and regulations are put in place, emissions are on pace to triple current figures by 2050.

U.S. domestic airlines improved their fuel efficiency almost 50 percent between 1993 and 2010. But since 2010, in the absence of any regulation, on average they have not made any further improvements. If aviation were a country, it would rank 7th overall in emissions, just below Germany and higher than Korea, Canada and others.

Friends of the Earth, Oceana, Earthjustice, NRDC and the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2007 to address aircraft carbon pollution, followed by several rounds of successful litigation. In 2014, the EPA announced a domestic rulemaking process to determine whether the fast-growing carbon emissions from U.S. aircraft endanger public health and welfare, under the Clean Air Act.

Draft proposals, however, are weak. They rely upon what is coming out of the International Civil Aviation Organization — the UN specialized agency that sets standards for aircraft. Over the past decade, the ICAO has failed to implement any measures to curb carbon pollution from aviation. In addition, the standards discussed at ICAO proceedings would exempt existing aircraft and may only apply to future engine designs which would fail to reduce current aviation emissions and fail to meet international carbon reduction targets.

Given the 25- to 30-year operational lifetimes of aircraft, the four- to seven-year waiting period before the rule the ICAO is proposing goes into effect, and the organization’s decision to set the stringency of the standard at 2016 technology levels (making the already weak standard eight to twelve years out of date when it goes into effect), the result will be a lowest common denominator standard with which nearly all airplanes will already comply and fail to encourage the phase out of older, more polluting aircraft potentially increasing the industry’s carbon emissions.

While the EPA’s announcement of a possible U.S. rule is an important step in the right direction, if it follows the lead of the ICAO, aircraft will continue to pump carbon into our atmosphere accelerating climate distruption.

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