The EPA Just Set the First-Ever Airline Pollution Standards and They Suck

These are the first domestic regulations on the U.S. airline industry! They’re also useless!
Photo: Cooper Neill (Getty Images)

The Environmental Protection Agency just enshrined the nation’s first-ever air pollution regulations on the aviation industry. But don’t get too excited, because they do basically nothing.

Until now, the airline industry was the largest source of greenhouse gas in the U.S. that faced no federal air pollution standards. Technically, the EPA just changed that with its Rule on Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Aircraft, which it finalized and made public on Monday.

But while the rule acknowledges that the sector’s emissions “contribute to the air pollution that causes climate change endangering public health and welfare,” it doesn’t actually do anything to reduce that pollution. Instead, it merely codifies another set of emissions guidelines: the ones from the United Nation’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Virtually all U.S. airlines are already subject to those rules, since they’re a requirement to conduct international travel.

The new rules won’t actually force the aviation sector to make any changes. These standards won’t even apply to all planes, just some new types of commercial ones. But the industry isn’t even working on any new models right now.

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“No new designs are currently in development, and none are expected for at least 10 years,” Liz Jones, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, wrote in an email.

Further, all in-service aircrafts are completely exempt. New airplanes of existing models won’t have to comply until 2028, by which time the EPA admits they would have been updated to meet the new regulations in any case.

“Independent of the ICAO standards nearly all airplanes produced by U.S. manufacturers will meet the ICAO in-production standards in 2028 due to business-as-usual market forces on continually improving fuel efficiency,” the new rule says.

The EPA does not project any emissions reductions from the rule, which is to be expected, because it copies guidelines that aren’t designed to reduce pollution.

“The problem with the ICAO standards is that they are designed to be technology-following, so that airplane manufacturers and airlines don’t need to make changes to reduce emissions,” wrote Jones.

The new regulations are particularly frustrating because they are so long overdue. The EPA determined back in 2016 that airline pollution fuels the climate crisis and puts public health at risk. It took several lawsuits on the part of the Center for Biological Diversity to get the agency to follow up with new rules on the books.

Even more infuriatingly, the new rules are outpaced by most aircraft manufacturers around the world. In fact, according to a September report by the International Council on Clean Transportation, the average new commercial jet was in compliance with the ICAO’s 2028 standards as early as 2016. So the new national standards are behind the international industry average by more than 10 years, despite the fact that the U.S. is responsible for one-quarter of worldwide aviation greenhouse gas pollution.

These standards aren’t it. Absent any regulations, airplane emissions have been rising rapidly, increasing by 7% from just 2016 to 2018. If pre-covid-19 projections hold, domestic aircrafts are expected to generate 43 metric gigatons of carbon by 2050, which is nearly the equivalent of a billion cars driven for a year.

Hopefully, the incoming Biden administration’s EPA will implement more stringent regulations on the airline industry. Jones said those new rules should apply to in-service aircrafts as well as new models, include reduction requirements for both new designs and operational improvements like fuel efficiency, and should include a ratchet mechanism to force the government to regularly update its standards.

“The most effective way of incorporating these three features would be to set a declining fleetwide average standard, which would allow airlines to reduce their emissions through operational changes and design improvements, decreasing demand growth, electrifying aircraft, or some combination of these options,” she said.

A 2020 report from the Center for Biological Diversity found that domestic airline pollution could be cut by three-quarters in the next 20 years if the federal government forced the sector to improve fuel efficiency by 3.5% each year and then rapidly built out its electrically powered fleet, electrifying all short-haul flights by 2040 and all long-haul flights by 2045. That may seem ambitious, but innovation in electric aircrafts is growing steadily: This year, the world’s largest plane of this kind flew for 28 minutes.

New regulations shouldn’t just account for the sector’s global warming impact, but also its contributions to toxic air pollution. The new rule, for instance, fails to even mention the high levels of particulate matter found in the air around U.S. airports, which hit airline workers and communities downwind the hardest. If it chooses to, Biden’s EPA could take on these environmental injustices, forcing the industry to make the switch to sustainable fuels and better-designed engines to address them.

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