The end of last month brought big news in the battle to rein in climate change. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from airplanes pose a threat to human health and the environment and therefore are subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.
The Act was originally passed in 1970 to combat air pollution in the form of airborne lead and mercury, sulfur and nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulates, and ground-level ozone — to name a few. It was updated in 1990 to include emissions that threaten the ozone layer, and again in 2009 to deal with emissions known to contribute to climate change.
This announcement now clears the way for the EPA to develop rules to regulate aircraft emissions, much as the agency has done for emissions from cars and trucks. Aircraft are responsible for roughly 12 percent of all U.S. transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, or a little over 3 percent of all U.S. GHG emissions.
Says Janet McCabe, the EPA’s acting assistant administrator for air and radiation: “EPA has already set effective GHG standards for cars and trucks, and any future aircraft engine standards will also provide important climate and public health benefits.”
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is already working on regulations that are expected to be released in 2017. Under its charter, the EPA could not develop regulations until it definitively established endangerment, meaning evidence that jet engine exhaust poses a public health threat. Given that finding, the EPA is now obligated to develop regulations.
At the same time, climate change is expected to increase wind speeds in many areas. Such a scenario could not only cause more turbulent flights, but also increase fuel consumption — as aircraft need more fuel to fly through turbulent conditions. ICAO’s proposed regulation will cut fuel consumption by 4 percent in current aircraft delivered after 2023 and new aircraft delivered after 2028.
The EPA’s rules are expected to be at least as stringent as that, if not more so. It is important, however, to harmonize regulations around the globe or risk creating an economic disadvantage for airlines of one country versus others.
Clearly, improving the fuel economy of jet engines will be a crucial aspect of the emissions-reduction program. And breakthroughs are already happening. United Technologies’ geared turbofan, after many years in development, by itself is expected to reduce to burn 16 percent less fuel than the previous generation. Add to this other means of improving aircraft fuel economy such as winglets, which have already proven to be effective, as well as a host of other innovations aimed at either improving fuel economy or reduce greenhouse gas impact.
Aviation biofuels, for example, are being looked at seriously by a number of airlines as well as the military. Growing the fuel, rather the drilling it from petroleum reserves, will reduce the net climate impact of flying.
And as the Solar Impulse aircraft completed its around-the-world flight, powered only by the sun, we see Airbus developing a small two-seat electric airplane, with plans for a 75-seat regional version down the road.
EasyJet is testing a hybrid-electric system that powers the wheels of a plane while on the ground, conserving fuel in the process. The electric propulsion system uses regenerative braking while landing to charge up the fuel cell that provides power.
Perhaps most surprising is news of a study conducted by Virgin Airlines, which found that pilots could save a considerable amount of fuel by making a number of choices during the course of a trip. By offering incentives to the pilots, the company was able to realize significant savings.
Given the differences between air travel and ground transportation, the new EPA rules will need to be more than another version of the CAFE standards taken literally to a higher level. EPA has a proven track record of not only getting results, but also working with industry to come up with regulations that make sense and are achievable.
Image credit: Chuks Spotting – Aviation Photography’s photostream