Thu 11 Jun 2015 – After an eight-year fight by environmental groups for regulatory action, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has now concluded that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from aircraft harm the climate and require addressing. The EPA says the US is responsible for 29% of all global GHG emissions from aircraft and concedes that aviation remains the single largest transportation source not yet subject to GHG standards in the US. To address the issue, the EPA is already working with the FAA on an international CO2 standard being developed at ICAO that if passed would be required to be adopted domestically under the US Clean Air Act. However, NGOs fear the standard will not be stringent enough and have little impact on emission reductions, although industry argues the standard will contribute to its global goals. The EPA announced an imminent 60-day public comment period.
The Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) released yesterday is an initial step in the process for the EPA to adopt international CO2 standards set by ICAO and the 194-page document details the impact of emissions from commercial aircraft on the climate and information on the ICAO standard-setting process.
The EPA said since it determined on the negative climate effects of cars and light trucks in 2009, the science on human-induced climate change had strengthened and supported its proposed finding that GHGs emitted from aircraft engines contribute to pollution that causes climate change endangering public health and welfare. The proposed cause and contribution findings were an initial step, it said, towards potentially aligning future international and US standards for CO2 emissions from aircraft engines.
“Today’s action supports the goals of the President’s Climate Action Plan to reduce emissions from large sources of carbon pollution,” it added in a statement.
The EPA was first petitioned over the issue as long ago as 2007 by four US environmental groups – Friends of the Earth, Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice – which later brought a successful lawsuit to compel the agency to act. Despite the victory, the groups are unconvinced that the steps proposed by the EPA in relying on a future, so far undefined CO2 standard will achieve meaningful reductions in emissions.
Vera Pardee, Senior Counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the EPA was dodging its climate responsibility by waiting for action from ICAO.
“In the last 18 years, ICAO has not adopted any measure to curb aircraft-induced global warming,” she said. “The organisation has rejected, in turn, efficiency standards, fuel taxes, emissions charges and global emissions trading.”
The Earthjustice attorney who brought the suit, Sarah Burt, added: “We commend the EPA for completing this important first step in regulating carbon pollution from airplanes, but, unfortunately, given the magnitude of aircraft’s contribution to climate change, the tentative approach that the EPA is considering is not up to the task. Instead of using its Clean Air Act authority to reduce these harmful emissions, the EPA proposes to follow the lead of ICAO and set a business-as-usual standard that will lock in emissions increases for decades to come.”
Key questions remain on the stringency and applicability of the standard that ICAO’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) – which includes representatives from industry as well as NGOs – is expected to agree at its meeting in February 2016, before it is accepted by the ICAO Council and ratified by the Assembly later in the year.
“The ICAO standard won’t deliver substantial reductions because they are setting a standard that 90-95% of aircraft already meet,” contends Burt. “It won’t apply it to existing aircraft, which have 20-30 year lifespans – only to new designs, which would push back the phase-in even more.”
Dan Rutherford of the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) said the proposal to grandfather in a large number of current aircraft designs would mean that a standard applied in 2020 would cover only 5% of the global fleet in 2030, according to ICCT analysis. However, his reading of the ANPR document suggests the US may not be entirely satisfied with the current direction the standard is heading.
“The ANPR implies the US may go even further if ICAO doesn’t agree a standard with teeth,” he said. “We might end up with something similar to the approach that the US has taken for international ships, which are subject to tighter environmental requirements in US waters than when operated elsewhere.”
Burt agrees that as the EPA has the authority to regulate US aircraft under the Clean Air Act, it is not limited to simply implementing the ICAO standard and could include in-use aircraft and set stringency levels above the floor contemplated by ICAO.
“Just as the EU included aviation in its emissions trading scheme, the EPA can set a CO2 standard that meets the requirements of the Clean Air Act and nor is it limited to ICAO’s timeline,” she said.
The ANPR mentions that traditionally international emission standards for aircraft engines have first been adopted by ICAO and subsequently the EPA has initiated rulemakings to establish domestic standards that are of at least equal stringency as ICAO’s engine standards. “However,” it states, “the Chicago Convention, which established ICAO, recognises that ICAO member states may adopt their own unique standards that are more stringent than ICAO standards.”
It adds later: “We ask for comment on the possibility of the EPA adopting a more stringent aircraft engine emissions standard than ICAO, provided ICAO/CAEP promulgates a standard in 2016 and the EPA makes a positive endangerment finding.”
Annie Petsonk, International Counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, said while EPA’s findings left the door open for it to propose tighter regulations than the international limits under discussion at ICAO, as aviation was a global industry, the solutions also had to include global action.
“A greenhouse gas efficiency standard for airplanes is a key piece of the cleaner skies puzzle,” she said. “So is an international agreement to cap climate pollution from aviation worldwide. Given the enormous growth slated for this industry, we need both.”
Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment suggested the US and EU should now step up cooperation at ICAO to ensure an environmentally effective CO2 standard.
“Europe should work with the US to ensure that the ICAO standard, which is in the final stages of development, is greatly improved,” said its Aviation Policy Manager, Bill Hemmings. “If that fails, the EU should join forces with the US to introduce stricter standards for the European and US markets, which together form over half the global total.”
Airline industry trade body Airlines for America (A4A) said it supported ICAO work to develop a CO2 certification standard for new type aircraft but pointed out that US airlines were driving 5% of US economic activity while accounting for only 2% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
However, A4A warned that the US should not go it alone with a different domestic standard. “Aviation is a global industry, making it critical that aircraft emissions standards continue to be agreed upon at the international level,” said Nancy Young, VP Environmental Affairs. “While we believe that any regulatory action must be consistent with both EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act and the future ICAO standard, today’s action reconfirms the EPA’s commitment to the ICAO process for achieving a global CO2 standard for new aircraft.”
Young noted the US aviation industry had improved fuel efficiency by 120% since 1978 and saved over 3.8 billion tonnes of CO2. Last year, US airlines had carried 20% more passengers and cargo than in 2000 while emitting 8% less CO2, she added.
Leslie Riegle, Director for Environmental Policy at the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), which represents aircraft and engine manufacturers, said the EPA’s action in assessing aircraft GHG emissions had not come as a surprise to the industry. “The EPA has been doing GHG emissions analysis sector by sector since 2007 when the Supreme Court determined that GHG emissions are ‘air pollutants’ under the Clean Air Act,” she said.
“Aerospace manufacturers, along with the rest of the aviation sector, are focused on emissions and fuel efficiency. The sector is also heavily regulated by other environmental regulations and must also comply with stringent aircraft safety and airworthiness requirements.
“Aviation is a critical, global industry that drives economic growth and prosperity. It is requisite that any regulatory action on GHG emissions by the EPA be consistent with the agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act and the ICAO standard.”
Riegle said the AIA would review the EPA proposals and consult with its members before responding during the public comment period, which opens once the ANPR had been published in the Federal Register.
The EPA said the scope of its proposed findings would cover jet aircraft with a maximum take-off mass (MTOM) greater than 5,700kgs – which would include commercial and larger business aircraft – and turboprop aircraft with a MTOM greater than 8,618kgs.
EPA – Aviation
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