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First Carbon Limits for Airplanes in U.S. Proposed by EPA (1)

July 22, 2020, 2:00 PMUpdated: July 22, 2020, 4:45 PM

The EPA proposed a new rule on Wednesday to set greenhouse gas emission standards for aircraft.

If finalized, the rule would set emissions standards for certain types of airplanes under the Clean Air Act. The Environmental Protection Agency was legally required to set those standards after it found in August 2016 that emissions from certain aircraft elevated concentrations of the greenhouse gases that are the primary cause of climate change.

The proposal will be legally defensible, reduce carbon dioxide, and help protect American jobs, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said during a Wednesday press call.

Emissions from the aviation sector are a significant contributor to climate change. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the International Civil Aviation Organization said carbon dioxide emissions created by international aviation would increase by as much as 69% from 2010 to 2020.

Under the proposal, the EPA will adopt domestic standards that conform with the ICAO’s recent guidelines. Those standards reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new aircraft starting in 2028.

It would also put the U.S. in line with some other developed countries in acknowledging aviation’s carbon footprint. In the European Union, airlines must obtain and surrender carbon allowances to cover emissions from their flights within Europe.

Already Complying

Many commercial planes in the U.S. already comply with ICAO standards, meaning the guidelines won’t trigger any improvements for their efficiency or fuel use, according to Clare Lakewood, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. Newly delivered aircraft are also expected to exceed the ICAO standards by roughly 10%, she said.

“Those standards will in no way address greenhouse gas pollution from aircraft in the way that we need them to, if we’re to protect ourselves and our communities,” said Lakewood.

Annie Petsonk, international counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the proposal is “wholly insufficient to put the aviation industry on a trajectory of declining emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

Petsonk called on Congress to take up legislation to make “any further aviation bailouts contingent on tough emissions limits for the sector.”

Wheeler said he hasn’t personally heard calls for stricter standards. The “loud and clear message I heard was, ‘Implement the ICAO standard,’ which is what we’re proposing to do today,” he said.

He also said the regulation will help ensure that older, less efficient airplanes are replaced by newer, more efficient models.

Industry Hails Proposal

A Boeing Co. spokesman called the proposal “a major step forward for protecting the environment and supporting sustainable growth of commercial aviation and the United States economy.”

Aircraft operators “need certainty that their new airplanes will be certified to the ICAO CO2 requirements,” the spokesman said.

He also said the proposal “will help ensure airplane manufacturers continue to advance technology for greater fuel efficiency,” as part of the industry’s strategy to cut net global aviation emissions to half of what they were in 2005 by 2050.

Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs at industry trade group Airlines for America, said in a statement that the proposal “is good for our industry, for our country and for the world.”

“Although the U.S. airlines are already driven to be highly fuel- and carbon-efficient, this stringent new emissions standard will help U.S. airlines make a green industry even greener,” Young said.

Efficiency Improvements

U.S. airlines improved their fuel efficiency by 40% between 2000 and 2019 and “are helping to lead the fight against climate change with a myriad of measures,” said Carter Yang, a spokesman for Airlines for America.

Those measures include developing sustainable alternative jet fuels and investments in more fuel-efficient aircraft, he said.

Yang also said the coronavirus pandemic has hit the airline industry hard. At its lowest point in late April, passenger volumes were down 96%, hitting levels not seen “since before the dawn of the jet age in the 1950s.”

Bookings have perked up slightly since then. Airlines for America members’ volumes are now down some 74% and carriers are operating 53% fewer flights than a year ago, Yang said. U.S. carriers have also idled 32% of their fleet, he said.

In January, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth notified the EPA of their intent to sue the agency for allegedly taking too long to set the emissions standards.

(Adds reaction from Boeing, Airlines for America in paragraphs 13 through 17.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Rebecca Baker at