The Next Climate Policy Fight Could Be All About Airplane Emissions

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Environmental groups are pledging to intensify their push on the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft in the wake of a new report showing no improvement in fuel efficiency from U.S. domestic airlines.

The pledge comes one day after the International Council on Clean Transportation released a report investigating how airline fuel efficiency, and therefore carbon intensity, has changed since 2010. It found that although some airlines increased their fuel efficiency, others had drastic declines, making for a zero net gain in the fuel efficiency of U.S. domestic airlines from 2012 to 2013.

Vera Pardee, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told ThinkProgress on Thursday that the findings prove that airlines won’t take up fuel efficiency protocols voluntarily. And if airlines won’t do it themselves, the EPA needs to step in — and soon.

“Efficiency efforts have completely stalled. They’re just not making any progress,” Pardee said. “The airlines keep telling us, don’t worry, hands off, we’re already doing everything we can to drive up fuel efficiency. But the report shows that’s just not happening, it’s just not true.”

There are a number of ways airlines can improve fuel efficiency, thereby reducing carbon emissions and costs (fuel represents around 40 percent of airline operating costs). These include adding a gear to turbofan engines, replacing engine parts, using biofuels, or market-based measures like cap and trade.

Working with environment group Friends of the Earth, Pardee said the groups would ramp up pressure on the EPA to develop some kind of requirements in two ways. One, by increasing public awareness, and the other by filing a lawsuit if the EPA does not make progress in issuing the regulations by January.

Both the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth have been pushing the EPA to regulate aircraft carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act since 2007, when the groups filed a lawsuit against the agency. Eventually, they won — four years later in 2011, the judge on the case found that the EPA must begin the process for crafting the regulations.

The first step in the process, Pardee said, is issuing an “endangerment finding,” which would essentially decide whether aircraft carbon emissions actually need to be regulated to protect public health and the environment. The EPA pledged that the endangerment finding would be completed by early 2014. But that hasn’t happened yet, and the groups threatened to sue the agency again in August over the delay.

In response, the EPA announced that it had finally started the rulemaking process. The agency says it expects to have an proposed endangerment finding by April 2015, and a final one by 2016. But Pardee has her doubts.

“They should have acted when we first asked them to in 2007, but they haven’t, and they’ve dragged their feet this whole way,” she said.

Sarah Burt, an attorney at Earthjustice who is advising the groups on legal action, said they would be keeping an eye on the agency.

“We know that EPA has given us their timetable, they say they’re on it,” Burt said. “If that schedule starts to slip, we’ll start looking more immediately at legal action.”

EPA spokesperson Enesta Jones told ThinkProgress via e-mail that it has been making progress on developing both its own regulations, and international carbon regulations for aircrafts through the International Civil Aviation Organization, which are expected to come out in 2016. She said the agency has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration, localities, manufactures, and the airline industry on the issues since 2009.

“Addressing greenhouse gas emissions from aircrafts are an important part of the Administration’s strategy to tackle climate change,” Jones said. “If EPA determines that aircraft greenhouse gas emissions cause or contribute to air pollution that could endanger public health or welfare, EPA would be required under the Clean Air Act to adopt standards to control these emissions.”

One reason the agency may have stalled on regulating carbon emissions from airlines is that, at the moment, they aren’t the biggest threat to the climate. The industry itself only produces approximately two percent of all human-caused carbon emissions, according to The International Air Transport Association.

But that percentage is projected to increase drastically in the near future. The International Council on Clean Transportation reports that the airline industry is on track to contribute up to 15 percent of all human-caused carbon emissions by 2050 as demand for air travel rises, developing economies expand, and incomes increase.

“It’s a sector that’s growing substantially, and we need to really curtail those emissions,” said Friends of the Earth policy analyst John Kaltenstein. “Right now, we need some regulatory attention to this matter to really achieve the emission reductions we need.”

The proposed regulations, if and when they are issued, stand to receive a lot of pushback from airlines. For one, airlines have historically argued that they don’t need fuel efficiency regulations, because it’s cost-effective and good for airlines in general to reduce their carbon emissions. In addition, the International Civil Aviation Organization — the United Nations agency that regulates international aviation — has promised to come out with its own emissions regulations in 2016.

Either way, environmentalists hope that next year will bring more focus on airlines, and how they can do their part to reduce air pollution and fight climate change.

“You’ll definitely hear more about this topic in 2015,” Kaltenstein said. “We want to see this issue through.”


This post has been updated to include the EPA’s comments.

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