EPA takes first steps to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from airplane engines

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is finally taking the first steps to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from airplane engines, one of the last frontiers after ground transportation and power plants.

The EPA looks to use authority derived from the Clean Air Act (section 231(a) to control "air pollution that causes climate change and endangers public health and welfare," without creating new rules alone.

It was seeking help from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which was more or less influenced by the airline industry.

Currently, planes represent around 11 per cent of emissions in the US transportation sector, which would rise as the industry continues to grow rapidly.

And while there was a clear path for ground transportation to decarbonise, it is trickier for planes. One possible destination for the industry would be highly efficient planes powered by truly carbon-neutral advanced biofuels.

The process set in motion could see federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions for the aviation industry.

The agency issued a proposed endangerment finding that said specific pollutants from planes, like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, were a public health threat as they contributed to climate change.

Globally, aviation accounts for about 700 million metric tons of CO2 per year, according to Daniel Rutherford of the research organisation International Council on Clean Transportation. He said if the worldwide aviation industry as a whole was ranked, it would be the seventh-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, behind Germany.

He added, it was currently unregulated at the global level and overall emissions were expected to triple by 2050.

US planes alone were responsible for 29 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions of the airline industry globally, according to the EPA, and domestically airplanes accounted for 11 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector.

Jim Inhofe, Republican from Oklahama, chair of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, speaking out against the EPA's measure, said US air carriers had already made great strides in fuel efficiency and many had committed to a 1.5-per cent annual fuel efficiency improvement through 2020.

He said bringing EPA into the equation would only increase costs without any substantial benefit.