Planes choking people and planet, says US environment agency

US green regulator takes measures to tackle billowing emissions from aviation industry on public health grounds

US airlines will be prohibited from taking part in the EU ETS scheme if the Senate's bill is eventually passed into law. (Source: Flickr/pawpaw67)

Emissions from US airlines make up 0.5% of global greenhouse gases (Source: Flickr/pawpaw67)

By Alex Pashley

The US Environmental Protection Agency has moved to control greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation industry.

Carbon emissions endanger public health because they cause global warming, the agency said on Wednesday.

It won’t yet impose new guidelines on airlines to crimp CO2, like it has done with vehicles and power plants, but seeks the legal backing to do so under the Clean Air Act.

The EPA will take the lead of the UN aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which it expects to agree a new standard to cut emissions in February 2016.

Aircraft emissions “endangers both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations,” the finding said,

It’s the latest development in President Barack Obama’s plan to curb global warming, as the US aims to cut emissions at least 26% by 2025 on 2005 levels. Though the execution of the proposals will likely fall to the next president as lobbying and the lengthy rule-making process slow implementation.

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Aircraft remains the single largest polluter that isn’t regulated in the US, the EPA said.

It accounted for 11% of all US transport emissions and 3% of national emissions in 2013.

In 2012 aviation accounted for 2% of global emissions, and its stake could rise as other industries decarbonise and more flights take off in developing countries.

The industry has successfully resisted attempts to curb emissions for years, and over 15 years of ICAO talks have borne little fruit.

At its last assembly in 2013 it agreed to constrain emissions growth of 2% a year until 2020, and thereafter growth would be “carbon neutral”.

The industry has a goal to halve emissions from 2005 levels by mid-century, but it isn’t binding.

The ICAO tasked itself with setting up a mechanism for airlines to offset emissions, but that deadline could be missed, RTCC reported in May.

“We feel this is the right thing for the EPA to be doing, as a precursor to be able to adopt what comes out of ICAO,” said Paul Steele, senior vice president at the International Air Transport Association, in comments reported by Reuters.

Existing regulations

The EPA said after forty years of tackling harmful air pollution from aircraft engines, the Clean Air Act gave it “broad authority”.

The aviation industry says high fuel costs and competition from other carriers have forced it to more efficient fuel consumption, lowering emissions.

But a boom in air travel has offset gains. Around 3.1 billion people take flights a year, three times the number that flew 30 years ago. What’s more, that could triple again by 2050.

“Such regulations would increase the price of airfare for Americans and harm our domestic carriers,” said Lamar Smith of Texas, a republican and chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, the New York Times reported.

“Over the last 50 years, the fuel efficiency of jetliners has increased by 70 percent. Incentives are already in place to make air travel more energy efficient,” he said.  Smith said the proposal were evidence of further regulatory overreach by the White House.

At present, only flights within the European Economic Area airspace are subject to any kind of carbon charge, being included in the EU’s emissions trading system.

Proposals to extend that to air links with non-EU destinations were dropped after a backlash from other countries, including US airline

The EPA will hold a public hearing in August to debate the plans.

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