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The EPA’s Significant Yet Totally Insufficient Approach To Plane Emissions

After years of prodding and legal action from environmental groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday that it will regulate greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft, but it stopped short of announcing any new standards. Instead, the agency adopted a wait-and-see approach and will take its cues from new international standards that should become finalized in February by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a U.N. agency that helps govern aviation issues. Analyses of the proposals ICAO is considering show that they fall far short of ICAO’s own emission goals, but it’s unclear whether the EPA will issue tougher rules if the ICAO ones don’t significantly cut emissions.

The EPA could have simply issued new rules, said Sarah Burt, a staff attorney at Earthjustice, one of the environmental groups that filed a lawsuit forcing the EPA to regulate aviation emissions as pollutants. Instead, it opted to wait for ICAO to issue its standards while releasing what’s called an advance notice of proposed rule-making, an optional regulatory step that allows the agency to solicit opinions on how to craft the regulations.

The decision to wait for ICAO slows a process that’s already moving too slowly, said Vera Pardee, senior counsel at the Climate Law Institute in San Francisco, one of the groups that forced the EPA’s hand on this issue. “The ICAO has an 18-year history of not acting,” Pardee told me. “We can’t keep shunting this off to others, and we can’t let industry control what happens. They’ve been flying under the regulatory radar, and that needs to come to an end — with a meaningful standard, not with paper stuff.”

Meanwhile, industry groups praised the move. “Our members support the work at the International Civil Aviation Organization to develop a carbon dioxide certification standard for new type aircraft, as it will further support our global aviation coalition’s emissions goals to achieve 1.5 percent annual average fuel efficiency improvements through 2020 and carbon-neutral growth from 2020,” the trade group Airlines for America said in a news release.

But as I wrote previously here at FiveThirtyEight, researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University have analyzed the ICAO proposals and concluded that they fail to meet emissions goals. The charts below are taken from a report by those researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University and show the emission reductions projected for various combinations of approaches: technology and operations, biofuel and emissions trading. These approaches are compared to three objectives (based on the ICAO plan).


The ICAO plan does little to tame emissions from aircraft, instead relying heavily on so-called “market-based measures,” where the aviation industry would pay other industries to reduce their emissions so aviation could continue polluting. (No word yet on how this would work in practice.) “There is no chance that the international regulations will actually reduce emissions,” Pardee said. The proposed standards do not include a cap, “so as airline usage grows, emissions will grow.”

Still, the EPA’s move is significant, because greenhouse gases from aviation are unregulated globally, and President Obama’s last action on aviation emissions was to sign a law blocking the U.S. from participating in the European Union’s Emissions Trading System. The EPA’s announcement does point to areas where the agency seems dissatisfied with the ICAO’s direction, said Daniel Rutherford, an environmental engineer at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), an independent nonprofit. The possibility that ICAO will set its regulations based on the trajectory of current technology, rather than set a goal that forces the industry to develop the technology that can meet it, was one potential sticking point. Another was a proposal to grandfather in a large number of current aircraft designs. If the grandfather clause is adopted, then a standard applied in 2020 would cover only 5 percent of the global fleet in 2030, Rutherford said.

In a news briefing, Christopher Grundler, director of EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, told reporters that the EPA’s eventual standard “should provide for emissions reductions that would not take place in the absence of a standard.” If ICAO fails to enact standards that meet this benchmark, the EPA could still adopt tighter rules. A final rule won’t be made until a new presidential administration is in place — 2018 at the earliest.

If the standards fall short of emissions goals, environmental groups will be standing by. “It’s kind of a black mark on Obama’s climate record, to say we recognize aviation’s contribution to climate change, and yet we’re choosing to set a standard that will essentially do nothing,” Burt said. “The Obama administration can do better.”

Christie Aschwanden was a lead science writer for FiveThirtyEight. Her book “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery” is available here.