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EPA Takes Strides to Reduce Emissions from Airplanes

Grant Whittington headshotWords by Grant Whittington
Leadership & Transparency
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The Environmental Protection Agency took its first steps toward regulating the greenhouse gas emissions that escape airplane engines and pollute the atmosphere. The EPA intends to update the Clean Air Act, which was first introduced in 1963, to include jurisdiction limiting the emissions from these plane engines.

This “endangerment finding” as the report puts it, proves that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are exiting the airplane's engines and entering the earth’s atmosphere. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, gas emissions from aircrafts account for 11 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. transportation sources and 3 percent of the country’s total CO2 emissions. Airplanes also emit water vapor at high altitudes, birthing clouds that produce heat and further global warming. With aircraft emissions expected to triple by 2050 if there’s no legislation to curb the vertically-growing industry, airplanes could conceivably ruin lives and dramatically speed up global warming.

Regulating emissions from airplanes is no new topic for environmental activists. Seven years ago, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth issued a petition against the EPA, calling for the country’s biggest protection agency to revise the Clean Air Act to include airplane emissions. The complaint went unanswered, but Earthjustice, an environmental law agency, pushed the absence of legislation and filed a lawsuit on the EPA. In 2011, a judge ruled that the EPA was legally permitted to start the process for crafting the regulations. Yet, three years after the judge’s ruling the EPA were still silent on the issue: until now.

Even with the opportunity to right its wrong from ignoring environmental activism calling for airplane emission regulation for years, the EPA failed to woo any organizations with its announcement that airplanes’ gas emission is, indeed, dangerous to human life. Instead of announcing its intent to immediately take action and create a standard for the regulation, the EPA deferred to a U.N. agency consumed by the issue.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, the Canadian-based U.N. specialization group dubbed with setting the standard, has been scrutinized for not delivering regulations on international airplane emission, despite trying since 1997. The group’s proven ineffectiveness in such a relevant field had a number of environmental organizations disappointed with the EPA’s decision to delegate its work to the group. Vera Pardee, an attorney for Center for Biological Diversity, told ThinkProgress that the ICAO standards will likely only be applicable to new aircrafts, which would target a predicted 5 percent of the world’s total airplane fleet by 2030.

While the EPA can take the backseat for the meantime, they can’t run and hide from the issue altogether. The protection agency will have to team up with the Federal Aviation Administration to draft standards. Although the two groups would face few limits, the EPA and FAA are required to set standards that don’t decrease safety or increase noise. The Supreme Court is on the EPA’s side: proving its support of the agencies’ power to regulate greenhouse gases as long as it determines those emissions dangerous to public health.

The EPA is expected to finish the endangerment finding next year which could be significant if the finding proves aircraft’s significant contribution to the carbon footprint. If it’s a positive endangerment finding, the EPA would be legally bound to writing emission regulations. Environmental activists hope the EPA will take further action than ICAO’s anticipated plan to only apply carbon changes to newly designed aircrafts.

Coverage from POLITICO said the aircraft rules could take years to write, and could face heavy opposition from airline industry lobbyists. The move to limit gas emissions from airplanes would greatly change the landscape of airline carriers, likely costing the industry billions of dollars in updating and maintaining the new energy-efficient engines.

While it will likely take a while for us to see the progress made from EPA’s discovery, it’s progress nonetheless and puts the world one step closer to improvement of air quality. The study and proposed changes would only apply to commercial aircrafts and wouldn’t apply to military carriers, turboprop planes or helicopters.

Image credit: Flickr/Andrew Malone

Grant Whittington headshotGrant Whittington

Based in Washington, DC, Grant works as a program assistant at SEEP Network, an international development nonprofit. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. Grant is passionate about humanitarianism and finding sustainable approaches to international development. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

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