Airplane pollution danger to public health, and will be regulated, U.S. EPA confirms

Statement by Annie Petsonk, International Counsel, on aviation pollution

July 25, 2016
Jennifer Andreassen, +1-202-572-3387,

(WASHINGTON – July 25, 2016) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today formally issued its finding that six greenhouse gases from aviation are dangerous to human health and welfare; that these gases cause and contribute to climate change; and that EPA will set standards for the emissions of these by commercial aircraft. Aircraft are the largest unregulated source of transportation emissions, and emissions from aviation could triple by 2050. Today’s finding opens the door for EPA to issue more stringent regulations than the international standards provisionally recommended by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Today’s rule means that the EPA is now required to undertake a separate notice and comment rulemaking to propose and issue emission standards applicable to the particular greenhouse gases from the classes of aircraft engines subject to the findings. Given that the Clean Air Act authorizes and directs EPA to regulate “any pollutant” from aircraft engines, today’s rule also leaves open the possibility that EPA will make similar findings with regard to other gases emitted by airplanes. Once EPA issues a standard for any greenhouse gas emitted by aircraft, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must prescribe regulations to ensure compliance with that standard.

EPA also found that U.S. aircraft emit almost one-third of aviation’s global total. Separately, the FAA has found that U.S. aircraft are slated for the fastest emissions growth of any form of U.S. transportation.

“We have efficiency standards to reduce climate pollution from cars, trucks, and school buses. It’s time to cut climate pollution from airplanes, too. EPA’s finding today recognizes that climate change is a risk to public health and our economy. The aviation industry must – and can – do much better.

“US aircraft have emitted the lion’s share of global warming pollution world-wide. We should shoulder the lion’s share of the pollution-cutting responsibilities as well. EPA’s endangerment finding today sets the stage for the US to step up to those responsibilities and lead the world on cleaner air travel, with a standard more stringent than the one adopted by ICAO. 

“As important as it is, a greenhouse gas efficiency standard for airplanes is only one piece of the cleaner skies puzzle. Given the enormous growth slated for this industry, we need both more efficient engines and an agreement to cap the total climate pollution from international civil aviation worldwide. In September, ICAO will vote on a proposal to do just that, using an innovative market-based mechanism to ensure that airlines achieve net carbon neutral growth from 2020. Securing a robust agreement in ICAO will be a key part of President Obama’s legacy on climate change.”

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