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An American 767-300 is towed off the gate (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Greg Linton)

U.S. to Adopt ICAO Climate Standards for Aviation

The United States Environmental Protect Agency (EPA) Office of Transportation and Air Quality proposed new Green House Gas (GHG) emission standards yesterday for commercial aviation and large business aircraft.

In a press release issued by the agency, the U.S. proposal aligns with the international carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations agency charged with planning and developing international travel growth and safety.

The proposed emission standards would apply to new type design airplanes on or after January 1, 2020, and to in-production airplanes on or after January 1, 2028. They would not apply to already manufactured airplanes that are currently in-use. After enactment, the emissions mandate would be enforced on manufacturers by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) via rulemaking.

The proposed rule, when finalized, will represent the first time the United States has regulated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from aircraft.

Predictably, the announcement was met with mixed opinions.

Boeing and Airlines for America, a trade group for several of the biggest U.S. airlines, praised the EPA’s decision.

Boeing issued a statement saying, “The EPA’s CO2 standard for aircraft is a major step forward for protecting the environment and supporting sustainable growth of commercial aviation and the United States economy. The aviation industry has increased fuel efficiency by 50% since 1990, and this regulation will help ensure airplane manufacturers continue to advance technology for greater fuel efficiency.”

But critics point out that both the ICAO and EPA standards are already obsolete as current aircraft in production meet the emission requirements both agencies have proposed for 2028.

The Center for Biological Diversity and The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), both of which are non-profit conservation organizations, consider the announcement to be lacking.

“This toothless proposal does nothing to meaningfully address the serious problem of airplanes’ planet-warming pollution,” said Clare Lakewood, climate legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The ICCT, in its press statement, added, “Regrettably, not only is the proposed standard too weak to accelerate investment in more fuel-efficient aircraft and engines, it lags existing aircraft technologies by more than 10 years.” It further noted that new airplanes today already meet the EPA’s proposed standard and it won’t motivate manufacturers to pursue lower GHG emission designs.

Opinions differ on the size and scale of the GHG emissions generated by airliners which the EPA and ICAO standards hope to reduce.

The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that commercial aviation currently accounts for 9% of all U.S. transportation CO2 emissions and 2.4% of CO2 emissions around the globe while Airlines for America and Airbus put the GHG emissions from aircraft at 2%. The EPA claims aviation accounts for 3% of GHG emissions currently. But all parties acknowledge the planned growth of air travel in the coming decades, and GHG emissions will likely increase if stricter measures are not put in place.

Despite the debate on the effectiveness of current emission standards for aircraft, it is clear that today’s aircraft and engine manufacturers see stricter rules ahead. Airbus and Boeing, the two largest manufacturers of commercial aircraft, are working to reduce emissions in their designs as they anticipate the enactment of stricter controls. For example, both manufacturers are working on new technologies involving the electrification of aircraft propulsion systems and the use of hybrid fuels which are expected to significantly lower CO2, NOx, and noise emissions.

Retrofitting current aircraft to be more fuel-efficient is both difficult and costly but airlines are also looking at creative ways to lessen their carbon footprint. Austrian Airlines recently eliminated shorter segment flights between cities and instead are shuttling passengers between them by train to reduce emissions and meet government pollution mandates. European low-cost carrier easyJet announced last year it will aim to offset its carbon emissions from all flights by investing in green programs at a cost of around £25 million. And most airlines are retiring their less efficient aircraft for newer models that will also help to lower GHG emissions.

Rick Shideler
Rick Shideler
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