The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Wednesday that greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes are a health hazard and should be regulated under the Clean Air Act.
The so-called endangerment finding paves the way for the agency to develop regulations over airplane emissions. However, unlike with earlier findings, the EPA did not take the opportunity to set a standard, but rather deferred to ongoing deliberations by a United Nations agency working on the issue. Groups that had advocated for standards were disappointed with the announcement.
“What EPA should have done is issue proper standards today,” Vera Pardee, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told ThinkProgress. “Airplanes are dangerous; pollution is dangerous. You can’t escape flying, but the means are there to get this under control.”
In an endangerment finding, the EPA determines that a substance — in this case, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — is endangering human life, and it establishes that a particular source is so large that it significantly contributes to the problem, Pardee said. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, if commercial aviation were a country, it would rank seventh after Germany in terms of carbon emissions. Those emissions are expected to more than triple by 2050 if no action to curb them is taken.
Regulating emissions from airlines has been a priority for environmental groups for nearly a decade. In 2007, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth filed a petition calling on the EPA to begin setting standards. The EPA did not respond to the petition, and EarthJustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of the environmental groups. In 2011, the judge ruled the agency was legally obligated to begin the process for crafting the regulations. In 2014, the EPA still had not come out with anything, and EarthJustice sent it an intent to sue.
By suggesting waiting for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to set a standard, today’s EPA announcement fell short of what many climate change activists were hoping for. ICAO, which is housed under the United Nations, has also been tasked with creating international limits on airplane emissions since 1997. But the agency has not produced any regulations, and it has been criticized for watering down potential action. The ICAO standards are likely to only apply to new aircraft, a designation that would apply to roughly 5 percent of the world’s total aircraft fleet by 2030, Pardee said. She called these expected standards “totally insufficient.”
But one way or another, with this new endangerment finding, the EPA will now have to address emissions from airlines.
“Once the endangerment finding is final, there is absolutely no way [the EPA] can avoid setting standards. It makes it mandatory to set standards,” Pardee said.
The EPA took the opportunity to call for comment on its announcement. Environmental groups, the public, and the industry are all expected to weigh in on whether waiting for ICAO is appropriate.
“This notice actually invites people to say, no, this is totally unacceptable to let a growing source of greenhouse gases to escape regulation,” Pardee said.
The EPA began regulating car pollution in the 1970s. The crackdown on particulate matter, poisonous carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and other pollutants has made a big difference in air quality across the nation, particularly in cities such as Los Angeles. Then in 2009 the EPA announced findings that carbon dioxide — the leading human contribution to climate change — was a pollutant and that vehicles were a significant contributor. That announcement led to increased vehicle fuel efficiency standards.
Since then, the EPA has also undertaken a lengthy, litigous, and as-yet unfinished project of regulated carbon emissions from power plants, under the Clean Power Plan. That rule is expected to be finalized in August, and the process for putting out an airplane rule is expected to be similar. In other words, it still may be a while before airplane travel is as green as advocates want it to be.
The EPA’s findings apply only to commercial aircraft — not military flights, turboprop planes, or helicopters.
As Pardee put it, “Our CEOS in their private jets get to go and do whatever.”