Just Plane Wrong

Global aviation is the fastest-growing cause of climate change. And the EPA might let it off the hook.

Airline EPA
Without government intervention, airlines don’t have much incentive to be friendlier to the environment.

Photo by Flechas cardinales / Shutterstock

The airline industry wants us to think it’s special when it comes to climate change. It’s not.

Sure, it can reliably hurtle us through the air—7 miles off the ground—at near-supersonic speeds. Sure, tailpipe emissions from aircraft are difficult to track because planes frequently cross international borders. And sure, planes are a critical component of our 21st-century economy. But that doesn’t give them the right to ruin the planet’s atmosphere.

To be clear: Flying is a luxury. Just 5 percent of the world’s population has ever set foot on an airplane. Of the almost 20 percent of Americans who have never flown, their household income is much more likely than average to be less than $30,000. But as global incomes rise, so does the demand for quick travel. As a result, global aviation is the fastest-growing major source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet.

As early as this Friday, the New York Times reports, the Environmental Protection Agency will issue an “endangerment finding” that the aviation sector contributes significantly to climate change. Under the Clean Air Act, the finding will require, for the first time, that airlines be regulated based on their environmental impact. Good news, right? Maybe. There’s a lot more to this story.

The finding has been a long time coming—eight years—and is arriving only after relentless legal prodding by environmental organizations. In contrast to cars and trucks, commercial aviation remains essentially unregulated when it comes to the environment. That will eventually change with this ruling, though not by much. And nothing will change immediately. The EPA will begin a period of public comment triggered by the endangerment finding, though policy experts with knowledge of the process worry the EPA has already made up its mind about what’s next.

“It looks very much like the bar is going to be so low that it’s basically going to pass all currently operating aircraft,” says Sarah Burt, a staff attorney at Earthjustice who represented a group of environmental organizations in the 2007 lawsuit that got things rolling. “It’s de facto useless … a business-as-usual standard.”

Considering the projected growth of the industry, the likely lax regulation means the EPA is letting the airline industry off the hook. “The result is going to be a significant rise in emissions,” says Burt. “It does not reflect an ambitious target based on what is possible in the industry.”

Burt says the eventual regulation is likely to be based almost entirely on recommendations from the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization, a group with a long and disappointing history when it comes to fulfilling one of its primary objectives: making sure that skies stay clean. The ICAO, which is dominated by industry and protectionist member states, has a terrible track record on climate. In the 18 years since the Kyoto Protocol—the world’s first climate change treaty—the ICAO has failed to adopt a single binding climate policy, along the way rejecting fuel taxes, emission charges, efficiency standards, and global emissions trading.

In early 2016 the ICAO is scheduled to issue guidance to its member countries, which includes the United States, on aviation efficiency and an emissions-trading platform for the industry (though there are fresh signs of delay). The problem is that Boeing, Airbus, and some of the world’s major airlines, represented by the International Air Transport Association (which claims 250 of the world’s biggest airlines), helped write the forthcoming documents, Burt says. The Montreal headquarters of IATA and ICAO are right across the street from each other. There’s little to practically distinguish the two entities.

So why is the EPA settling on regulations that will likely go easy on the aviation industry?  Burt sees an obvious culprit. “Boeing is, by dollar value, the United States’ largest exporter,” she says. “The political clout of Boeing is huge.”

Vera Pardee, the senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, a party to the 2007 lawsuit, says recent related action by the European Union to force the industry into reducing its emissions via a carbon-trading platform also fell victim to industry influence. For nearly a decade, the European Union worked to establish an emissions-trading scheme that it wanted to apply to all aircraft landing in EU territory. In 2012, as the proposal was being finalized, Pardee says China, Brazil, and other countries threatened to cancel their orders with Airbus, which is based in France. Likely wanting to protect the bottom line of one of its biggest companies, the European Union agreed to “stop the clock” in 2013 on its enforcement of aviation emissions. According to Pardee, that’s evidence of the “amazing influence that the industry has over this entire process, and continues to have.”

In an attempt to head off future lawsuits, Burt says, the EPA is “very carefully trying to thread the needle between its domestic obligations under the Clean Air Act and its participation in the international negotiation process for developing international standards.” She worries that a new rule based on ICAO standards would do “effectively nothing” to reduce aviation emissions. Bottom line: Expect more legal action.

Of course, the industry disagrees. “We have a very aggressive program for continuing to address our greenhouse gas emissions,” says Nancy Young, vice president for environmental affairs with Airlines for America, the United States’ largest airline industry lobby group. “Having the standard set by an agreement of countries … is a time-honored way of making sure these standards apply around the world.”

Young says the U.S. airline industry has committed to “carbon-neutral growth” from 2020 onward. To achieve that, it plans to rely on improvements in technology, operations, and infrastructure—including a significant uptake in biofuels derived from municipal solid waste, algae, agricultural waste, and oil seed. “We are not relying on the CO2 aircraft standard by itself,” Young says.

The ICAO “industry emissions reduction roadmap” to 2050 assumes a massive growth in the use of biofuels, a field that doesn’t currently exist on a commercial scale. The roadmap also relies heavily on “market-based measures” to offset aviation’s emissions in other sectors of the economy. In other words, the airline industry is factoring in participation in emissions-offset schemes—which, in theory, redistribute emissions reductions to sectors of the economy that can more easily achieve them, but in practice have many problems as a primary source of emissions reductions. If instead the industry adopted stricter efficiency standards, there’d be much less need to resort to these sorts of measures that haven’t yet been tested on the necessary scale.

Young is skeptical that significant emissions reductions would be possible without market-based measures. “What do you want us to do? Do you want us to suppress demand for flying? Do you want people to not see grandparents or bring critical goods to earthquake zones?” she says. “There’s only so much you can do to drive an aircraft to be more fuel-efficient.”

That’s true, but according to Dan Rutherford, aviation program director at the International Council on Clean Transportation, there’s no technical excuse why we can’t have a drastically more fuel-efficient airline industry in just a decade or so. The most optimistic scenarios show the potential for global aviation to improve fuel efficiency quite quickly.

By making use of lighter materials (like the carbon fiber-reinforced Boeing 787) and better engines (like geared turbofan and open rotor designs), Rutherford says it’s possible for the airline industry to improve fuel efficiency by up to 40 percent by 2020 and up to 80 percent by 2030 using traditional tube-and-wing aircraft designs, relative to 2000 levels. (Airlines managed about 11 percent improvement between 2000 and 2014.) Thinking longer-term, blended wing designs currently being explored by NASA could triple fuel efficiency. “The near-term potential for aircraft improvements is surprisingly large,” says Rutherford.

Instead, ICAO is likely to grandfather in all currently-in-production aircraft, and require that airlines adopt 2016 state-of-the-art fuel efficiency measures only for future designs. Given the 25-to-30–year lifetime of commercial aircraft, “it’s hard to imagine the approach that ICAO is taking as delivering much in the way of additional improvement,” says Rutherford.

The industry’s resistance to more ambitious standards also flies in the face of the significant strides it’s actually made. Over the last few decades, U.S. airlines have steadily improved their fuel efficiency to the point that, in some cases, it’s now actually better for the environment to fly than drive the same distance alone. (Taking the bus is always better than either.) But that steady progress is stalling out. In 2013, U.S. airline efficiency didn’t improve at all. Over the coming decade or so, as electric cars and buses powered by renewable energy gain favor, aviation emissions will likely get worse and worse by comparison. Modernizing air traffic control systems and further squeezing more people on to planes will help a little.

Since there’s currently no realistic way to completely power an airplane by electricity—the engines are too energy-intensive, and the batteries are too heavy—the industry is wedded to oil like almost none other. And once you factor in the industry’s tremendous growth worldwide, it explains why total worldwide airplane emissions are soaring. And that’s what really terrifies the experts.

In even the most optimistic scenarios, by 2050, aviation could amount for as much as 15 percent of global emissions. (It’s now just 2 percent.) In the U.S., under a “deep decarbonization pathway,” aviation could account for as much as 50 percent of all transportation emissions by 2050. (It’s now about 10 percent.)

Global aviation volume is growing so quickly—about 5 percent per year—that it’s overwhelming gains in efficiency—about 1.5 percent per year. Should that trend continue, it will become more and more important for governments to crack down on the industry, which just isn’t currently happening.

That’s where regulations come in.

In an era of volatile oil prices, airlines theoretically have every incentive to curb fuel use on their own. But they aren’t. Aviation engineers are butting up against the laws of physics (but, more likely, the economics of an industry with incredibly tight profit margins). That means aircraft and engine manufacturers are cranking out old designs longer than ever before, and that’s slowing down the pace of efficiency growth. “It’s incredibly simple to see: If you fly a bunch of aircraft designed 30 years ago, you are polluting by far more than you have to,” says Pardee.

Still, there’s one more rarely discussed way of decreasing emissions: fly less. In 2013 my wife and I decided to stop flying for good in an attempt to reduce our carbon footprint. That’s admittedly an extreme step, and it won’t work for most people, but airlines can do a lot to help business travelers—who make up the bulk of all flights—pay their fair share.

Remember, aviation emissions come almost exclusively from the world’s wealthiest people—they can afford to pay slightly more for cleaner airplanes. A recent study showed that a $1,000 flight from Chicago to London would need to go up in price only $14 per year to curb demand enough to reduce emissions. Another recent analysis said that demand management—reducing the total number of flights—is necessary to keep climate change to a rise of no more than 2 degrees Celsius.

If manufacturers have no regulatory incentive to design and build significantly more efficient aircraft, and if airlines have no regulatory incentive to buy them, the push may have to come from fliers themselves.

Rutherford, who, like many frequent fliers, says his personal emissions are dominated by the flights he takes, says his organization is looking into ways to help air travelers better account for the climate impact of their flights. “When you buy a ticket on Expedia or Kayak, it gives you tons of information about your flight—the price, the layover time, the on-time performance—but at the moment, no one gives you carbon emissions,” he says. “We’d really like to see that happen.”