LOS ANGELES— Planet-warming pollution from U.S. aviation could be cut by three-quarters or more in the next 20 years, according to a new report released today by the Center for Biological Diversity. The report challenges airplane emissions standards recently proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency as weak and ineffective.
Coupled with today’s report, the Center and more than 100 environmental, health and community groups filed comments calling on the EPA to quickly replace the proposed rule with strong, technology-forcing standards that rapidly decarbonize the aviation industry in line with what climate science demands.
The report finds that with the EPA’s proposed standards, U.S. aircraft will emit nearly 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide between 2020 and 2040, including nearly 250 million tons in 2040 alone. But to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, the United States must reduce its emissions to near zero by 2040.
Pressing for urgent action by the agency, the report points to the United States’ outsized role in producing airplane pollution. The U.S. aviation sector emits more than any other country, totaling a quarter of global passenger-flight emissions.
“With the climate crisis all around us, we can’t ignore the millions of tons of greenhouse gases being put out by airplanes roaring over our heads,” said John Fleming, a scientist at the Center’s Climate Law Institute and the lead author of the report. “We can cut aviation pollution more quickly and effectively than most people realize, but we need technology-forcing standards. We can’t get there if the EPA lets the industry write the rules.”
The report outlines three steps to decarbonizing aviation in the next 25 years:
- Fuel efficiency improvements of at least 3.5% annually starting in 2020;
- Electrifying all short-haul flights by 2040;
- Electrifying all long-haul flights by 2045.
By adopting these standards, the report says, U.S. emissions would be 75% to 80% less in 2040 than under the EPA’s proposed standards, and 90% to 100% less (near zero) in 2045, depending on the proportion of partially electric to all-electric aircraft in the future fleet.
The report points out that aviation fuel efficiency improvements have historically exceeded what is expected under the agency’s proposed standards and could far outpace the do-nothing standards in coming years.
It also notes that commercial electric aircraft are increasingly within reach, with NASA suggesting that turboelectric and hybrid-electric large aircraft could be tested by 2025 and enter service starting in 2035. Advances in battery technology point to a fully electric aircraft potentially viable in the same timeframe.
The Center and allies also filed technical comments with the EPA, blasting the agency for ignoring such advances in setting standards that the industry already meets.
“It flies in the face of science and reason for the EPA to adopt outdated standards promoted by the airline industry,” said Liz Jones, the Center attorney who filed the comments. “Under the Clean Air Act, the agency can’t adopt standards that fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when it has already determined that those emissions endanger public health and welfare. These standards are not only foolish, they’re illegal.”