The Obama administration is taking the first step toward regulating greenhouse-gas emissions from airplanes, but it acknowledged it would most likely take years before stringent standards are enacted.
The Obama administration said Wednesday it would take the first step toward regulating greenhouse-gas emissions from airplanes but acknowledged it would most likely take years before stringent standards are enacted.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said plane emissions endanger human health because they contribute to global warming. The finding does not yet impose specific new rules on airlines but requires the agency to develop them as it has done for motor vehicles and power plants.
Given the extended timetable for rule-making, and lobbying by the airlines that international regulations should apply to all the carriers, it is almost impossible that new rules will be completed during the Obama administration. The legal obligation for completing the work would then fall to the next president.
The announcement represents the latest of President Obama’s major initiatives to combat climate change. Next week, the agency is expected to propose new rules on emissions from heavy-duty trucks, and in August it is expected to announce new rules to rein in power-plant pollution.
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The EPA said it would also wait for current international negotiations on limiting aviation carbon emissions before publishing its final rule. Those discussions, taking place within the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a U.N. agency charged with aviation rules, began in 2009 and are expected to be completed in February 2016.
Christopher Grundler, director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, said the agency would work closely with international authorities on developing a standard for regulating airline emissions worldwide. But he did not say whether the standards would be more stringent than international ones. The agency said Wednesday that it was seeking public comments on those standards.
“Our No. 1 goal is to secure a meaningful international standard,” he said. “There are sound environmental reasons to do so. An international policy would secure far more greenhouse-gas emissions reductions than a domestic-only plan.”
But environmental groups fear that the international group — which works closely with airlines, as well as the EPA — will propose a weak standard, and are already urging the United States to move faster.
“Airplane carbon pollution is skyrocketing, but the EPA is still dodging responsibility for curbing this climate threat,” said Vera Pardee, senior counsel and supervising lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Passing the buck to an international organization that’s virtually run by the airline industry won’t protect our planet from these rapidly growing emissions.”
Deborah Lapidus, director of the Flying Clean campaign, an effort by a coalition of environmental groups, said the EPA had authority to regulate domestic-airline emissions immediately. U.S. airlines account for about a third of all aircraft global emissions.
Without limits, aviation emissions are set to double by the end of the decade.
“The airlines have a responsibility to do their part on climate change just like every other industry, and EPA needs to hold them to that,” Lapidus said.
Republicans, for their part, also attacked the EPA announcement, calling it another example of Obama’s regulatory overreach.
“The sky is the limit when it comes to how much of the U.S. economy the EPA wants to control,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
Airlines contend they have worked aggressively to reduce fuel use and increase efficiency. They are looking into new technologies and alternatives like carbon-neutral, but costly, biofuels.
In their drive to reduce fuel costs, airlines have turned to a variety of strategies, like taxiing with a single engine, fitting winglets to improve plane aerodynamics, or using lighter material for seats. Some have cut back on the ice they bring on board.
Each 5.5 pounds of weight reduced on a plane means a 1-ton drop in carbon emissions per year, according to International Air Transport Association (IATA) data.
But making big cuts in emissions is a hard task, with efforts more than offset by the growth of the aviation sector worldwide.
Aviation accounts for about 2 percent of global emissions, but it is among the fastest-growing sources of global greenhouse-gas emissions as air travel becomes more affordable and more people travel around the world. By 2020, international aviation emissions could be 70 percent higher than in 2005, even if fuel efficiency improves by 2 percent a year, according to estimates cited by the European Commission.
Commercial airlines have voluntarily committed to limit the growth of their carbon emissions to 2 percent a year through 2020, then cap emission growth after that. By 2050, the industry hopes to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions to half their 2005 levels, according to IATA.
“We are driven to be really fuel-efficient because fuel is usually our No. 1 cost,” said Nancy Young, the vice president for regulatory affairs at Airlines for America, the industry’s trade group. “So, we are driven to be very carbon-efficient as well. We are doing everything we can through technology and operations to reduce our emissions.”
In 2014, domestic carriers burned 8 percent less fuel than they did in 2000, while carrying 20 percent more passengers and cargo, she said.
Buying new planes with more efficient engines remains the most effective path to reducing an airline’s fuel costs.
The newest generation of airplanes, like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350, promise about 20 percent better fuel economy, thanks to new engines and lighter airframes.
So far, Boeing has delivered over 280 of its 787s to airlines around the world, out of more than 1,100 planes it has on order. Airbus has 780 A350s on order and has, so far, delivered three.