Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took the first step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes. The rule-making process will take months if not years, but the lingering question is, how will the proposed regulations fit with what other countries are doing about their aircraft?
That commercial and private airplanes contribute to air pollution has never been in any serious doubt. Not only do their engines generate a considerable amount of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, but they also produce harmful nitrous oxide, and even the water vapor contrails they leave behind can exacerbate the warming effect of their emissions.
All told it's estimated that aircraft produce about 11 percent of all the greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector and 3 percent of total U.S. emissions. That may not put them in the same category as the far-more-numerous automobiles and trucks or the far-more-destructive coal-fired power plants, but it's a source that deserves to be addressed, particularly given the forecast growth of aviation — with federal authorities predicting a 49 percent increase in aviation fuel consumption between 2010 to 2035 even with the industry's fuel efficiency improvements of recent years.
A United Nations agency, the International Civil Aviations Organization, has already been developing international standards and hopes to have a plan in place by sometime next year. The obvious advantage of this approach would be to standardize aircraft and their performance capabilities on a global scale. But there are doubts about whether these negotiated standards will be tough or timely enough, and given the international experience with climate change negotiations generally (and the difficulty of negotiating any multilateral agreements with enforceable timetables), those misgivings are well justified.
There is another option, however. In the 1960s California began enforcing tougher standards for motor vehicle tailpipe emissions than any other state in the union. Smog was the original target of these state-based rules, but eventually concerns over climate change became part of the regulatory framework as well. Many in the auto industry criticized this approach as unworkable given that 49 other states followed federal standards, not California's.
But then a funny thing happened. Other states and federal authorities began taking their cues from California, which accounts for sales of about 1 in 10 automobiles. Today, at least 14 states have adopted the California standard, including Maryland, Pennsylvania and all the Northeastern states. They saw the air quality benefits and joined in without a national or international requirement being negotiated or imposed.
The United States may find itself in a similar position. The U.S. represents the lion's share of airline travel — a $1.5 trillion contributor to the economy — and should not have to wait for the ICAO. Indeed, domestic airlines haven't. In recent years, they've already made upgrades. They burn less fuel to carry more passengers and cargo, if only to reduce fuel costs, a major carrier expense. The question is how much further will they be willing to go, especially at a time of relatively low petroleum prices, without EPA regulations in place?
This can be a win-win for efforts to reduce the impact of climate change, for the airlines and for passengers. The sooner standards are in place, the sooner aircraft manufacturers like Boeing can plan for the next generation of aircraft and the sooner the U.S. can set the example for the rest of the world on a voluntary basis. Nor should anyone assume that jet fuel prices will remain at current levels — even with hydraulic fracturing there are limits to the world's petroleum supply — and that's a powerful argument for burning less fuel.
Airplane passengers tend to feel a bit put upon these days. From shrinking seats to shrinking baggage — a proposal released last week by an international trade group to reduce the size of carry-on bags by roughly 20 percent representing just the latest indignity — the unpleasantries of air travel seem to be constantly mounting. But unlike lost leg room or smaller overhead bins, reducing carbon output from planes is in the best interests of everyone and not just shareholders. Should the U.S. airlines make these changes before their counterparts in China or other reluctant nations, that's to their and this country's competitive advantage.