Find out more from the
Center for Biological Diversity:
Airplane Emissions

The Hill, November 22, 2014

Federal action needed to tame airlines' high-flying climate pollution
By Vera Pardee

Some 24 million Americans will cram into airplanes for Thanksgiving travel this year. They’ll face flight delays, bag fees and hassles with reclining seats. And most will fly home in inefficient planes that spew far too much climate-damaging carbon pollution. 

Greenhouse emissions from aviation are rising rapidly, even as scientists explain that we’re running out of time to avoid disastrous global warming effects, from dangerous temperature increases to food-supply disruptions. 

But the airline industry is ignoring its carbon pollution problem, judging by a new report. U.S. domestic airlines showed no fuel efficiency improvement last year, according to an analysis by the respected International Council on Clean Transportation, or ICCT.

The report’s disturbing findings underscore a simple fact: We can’t wait for the airlines to get their act together. The Environmental Protection Agency must move forward rapidly with plans to regulate the airline industry’s planet-warming pollution. 

The EPA finally started that rulemaking process for airplanes about two months ago. By April of next year, regulators expect to complete the first step in rulemaking -- determining whether aircraft carbon emissions endanger public health and welfare.

The answer is a foregone conclusion: Of course greenhouse emissions from airplanes endanger us, and of course EPA must take the next step and reduce this pollution. 

The risk is clear. Aviation now accounts for about 11 percent of carbon emissions from the U.S. transportation sector, and emissions are rising 3 percent to 5 percent every year. 

If counted as country, global aviation would have ranked seventh in terms of carbon emissions in 2011, just after Germany. These already massive emissions are projected to triple by 2050. Our climate simply cannot take that pollution.  

Airlines, of course, argue that no regulation is needed. But the new ICCT report eviscerates their main talking point. The analysis found that the least-efficient airline burned an estimated 27 percent more fuel than the three most efficient carriers to provide an equivalent level of transport service in 2013. 

That vast difference in efficiency flatly disproves industry arguments that fuel costs automatically push airlines to maximize efficiency. As the ICCT study makes clear, all these domestic airlines were profitable -- even those burning fuel with abandon by using older, inefficient aircraft. 

There seems to be little incentive for voluntary improvements. And given plunging fuel prices, that’s only going to get worse. 

But there’s a positive side to the 27 percent fuel-burn discrepancy between the best and worst airlines: It demonstrates that enormous progress can be made to reduce emissions. 

Changing course and reducing our carbon trails across the sky should be an easy ask when such vast improvements are so clearly feasible. EPA rules would push domestic airlines to make those improvements, and they would also be a catalyst for renewed international efforts to curb aviation pollution. 

Airlines, of course, aren’t the only ones to blame for the lack of progress. The EPA has dragged its feet on this issue for years. The agency only took the first steps in the regulatory process after my organization and others launched legal action over this failure to deal with airlines’ contribution to global warming. 

That foot-dragging is inexcusable. We have little time left to ward off catastrophic climate change. A disturbing United Nations’ scientific report recently revealed that greenhouse gas pollution is growing so rapidly that, if unstopped, the damage will be  “"severe, pervasive and irreversible." 

As we take our seats for Thanksgiving flights, the airline industry wants us to believe they’re “greening” themselves. Not so fast. In fact, airlines burn through much more fuel than necessary and emit more carbon pollution even as they bank sizeable profits. 

We must push the EPA to propose meaningful emission reductions that allow us to fly with cleaner consciences and cleaner air. If we want to preserve a livable climate, we can’t tolerate further delay. 

Pardee is a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute.

2014 Capitol Hill Publishing Corp., a subsidiary of News Communications, Inc.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton