Trump Administration Finalizes Weak Rules On Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Airplanes

The first certified electric airplane    Photo: Andrejcheck, Wiki CC

The first rules to attempt to reign in greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes went final last week — the only problem is that it won’t actually reduce emissions below current levels because they merely codify improvements the industry is already making, The Hill reported.  The new rule mirrors the standard put in place in 2017 by the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations’s top aviation authority, which calls for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from new aircraft by 4 percent over 12 years.  The agency made no secret of the lack of ambition embodied by its rule saying. “EPA is not projecting emission reductions associated with today’s proposed GHG regulations,” according to reports.

Why This Matters: Transportation emissions are one of the largest sources, and even though airline emissions are only around 9% of the U.S. total, they had been increasing greatly pre-pandemic.  Airline efforts are far behind other transportation sources when it comes to developing control technologies and biofuel alternatives.  Without a strong push from the government, no airline or airplane maker is likely to tackle the difficult challenge of making more fuel-efficient and lower-emitting airplanes.  Hopefully, the incoming Biden administration, particularly the Defense Department, can push the airline industry to build back better given all the COVID relief it has received.  

NGO Reactions

The environmental community was swift to criticize the new rule.  Annie Petsonk of the Environmental Defense Fund said in a release, “This do-nothing rule is totally inadequate in light of the climate crisis. That the EPA’s rule is being finalized concomitantly with Congress issuing another multi-billion-dollar COVID-19 rescue package for airlines — with no enforceable requirements for airlines to improve their environmental performance — underscores the need for swift regulatory action by the next administration so that airlines put climate at the core of their recovery.”   Similarly, Liz Jones, with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute argued, “This rule is especially infuriating because there are effective ways for the aviation industry to modernize and decarbonize. What we desperately need are technology-forcing standards to get the industry on track.”

EPA reverted to the usual jobs versus the environment argument saying of the rule that it is a “pragmatic approach to climate action [that] has produced meaningful results without unnecessarily sacrificing American jobs.”

Democratic Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Ed Markey have in the past called for the big airline industry bailouts to come with some corresponding commitments to reduce their emissions.  “Carbon offsets should be a condition for any such bailouts,” Senator Whitehouse tweeted last March after the airline industry received its first $50B in relief funding.  He went on to say, “Airlines that want public support should live public values.”

What You Can Do: Keep meeting virtually. The pandemic could lead to a more sustainable amount of business travel, but only if that is more acceptable once it is safe to travel by air in large numbers again.

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