Climate

The U.S. Just Got One Step Closer To Regulating Airplane Carbon Emissions

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The White House received a key recommendation from the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday which could determine whether the agency will place limits on greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes.

According to a report from The Hill, the EPA sent the White House’s Office of Management and Budget its draft conclusion on whether carbon emitted from airplanes is cumulatively harmful to the environment. If the EPA’s decides that airplane emissions are indeed harmful, then the agency will be required to regulate those emissions under the Clean Air Act.

After the White House reviews the EPA’s conclusion, the agency can officially propose it to the public. That is expected to happen by May 2015, with a final decision expected to be made by 2016.

Right now, greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft are only responsible for about 2 to 3 percent of total U.S. emissions. But the industry’s effect on manmade climate change is expected to increase significantly as demand for air travel rises, developing economies expand, and incomes increase. Specifically, the industry is expected to contribute up to 15 percent of all human-caused carbon emissions worldwide by 2050, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.

Environmental groups have long been pushing the EPA to regulate aircraft emissions before they get to that point. In 2007, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit against the agency to speed up the rulemaking process. Eventually, they won — four years later in 2011, the judge on the case found that the EPA was legally obligated to begin the process for crafting the regulations.

Still, the process has gone much more slowly than environmentalists would like. Just last year, The Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth threatened to sue the EPA again over the pace of the rule’s roll-out. The groups note that the EPA once promised that the determination of whether airplane emissions were harmful would be completed by early 2014. That clearly didn’t happen. “They’ve dragged their feet this whole way,” Vera Pardee, a staff attorney for the Center, told ThinkProgress in November.

Many have speculated how airplanes could achieve required emissions reductions without buckling under economic pressure. The most popular suggestion has been to improve fuel efficiency, thereby reducing carbon emissions and costs (fuel represents around 40 percent of airline operating costs). Ways to do that include adding a gear to turbofan engines, replacing engine parts, using biofuels, or market-based measures like cap and trade.

However, none of those solutions may be effective without increases in ticket prices. Because demand for air travel is expected to increase so much in the future, research has suggested that carbon emissions would increase even with the most strict limits in place. That research, published last year in the journal Atmospheric Environment, suggested that the only way carbon emissions could feasibly be reduced in that industry is to decrease air travel demand — and the only way to do that is to raise the price of tickets.

Either way, regulations stand to receive a lot of pushback from airlines if and when they are proposed. Historically, airlines have argued that they don’t need fuel efficiency regulations because reducing emissions is cost-effective and good for business. Many airlines actually have upped their efficiency game in recent years, but as a whole, U.S. airlines haven’t reduced emissions.