Air Clean Up
Will the EPA's Airline Pollution Standards Make a Difference?
Jan 17 2021
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just introduced its Rule on Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Aircraft, which is the first piece of national legislation to impose regulations on the aviation industry. But although the laws are long overdue, they unfortunately don’t appear set to make much of a difference to the existing status quo.
That’s because the regulations have been lifted almost wholesale from the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) guidelines. As such, most aircraft the world over already comply with those rules, since doing so is a prerequisite of air travel. Worst still, the EPA’s new legislation only applies to new models – even though no new designs are in the pipeline and aren’t expected to be for 10 years.
Air travel flying under the radar
Last year, one of the more positive environmental implications of coronavirus was the decline in air travel and the subsequent drop-off in emissions created by the aviation industry. However, the sector is expected to bounce back in 2021 and beyond, meaning that emissions will eventually return to or even exceed pre-pandemic levels.
Before the introduction of the EPA’s new pollution standards, aviation was the largest contributor of greenhouse gases which didn’t face any sort of regulation in the States. That’s despite the fact that the EPA determined that aviation was responsible for contributing to the climate crisis in 2016. Five years and several protracted court battles later, the rules have final been forthcoming – but they are woefully unfit for purpose.
The problems with replicating the ICAO’s guidelines for the EPA’s purposes are manifold. Firstly, those guidelines were designed to be technology driven; rather than encouraging aircraft to curb their emissions, they were modelled upon what the industry was currently capable of. Furthermore, they have already been complied with by virtually all aircraft across the globe, making their enshrinement in US law all but worthless.
Perhaps most concerningly of all, the EPA’s rules are only intended to apply to new models. In-service aircraft have been given a full exemption from the legislation, with even new craft built on existing designs free from penalisation until 2028. That shows a distinct lack of ambition from the EPA to implement any meaningful regulations on the industry, instead kicking the subject into the long grass.
Major changes needed
With advanced technology offering us new perspectives in emissions monitoring, scientists predict that domestic air travel in the USA alone could contribute 43 metric gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere in the next 30 years. For that reason, experts are understandably upset at the lack of oversight contained within the EPA regulations.
In order to have a tangible effect on the industry’s emissions, they must be amended to include in-service planes as well as new models and incorporate emissions reductions compliance for both types of aircraft, including on things like fuel efficiency. Finally, the standards must be designed in such a way that they are evaluated and updated on a regular basis, to ensure the US aviation industry is constantly leading the fight against airline pollution.
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