Although the cost of airfare has declined dramatically since the late 1970s, the environmental cost of flying is rising as more travelers take to the skies. Aviation currently accounts for 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but by 2020 aviation emissions could be 70% higher than in 2005. As part of its comprehensive emissions regulations, the Obama Administration just announced plans to limit emissions from airplanes. Although no specific restrictions were mandated in the EPA’s announcement on Wednesday, the statement sends a clear statement on how the aviation industry should develop over the coming decades.
Before the EPA issues its final rules on aviation emissions, the agency is waiting on international climate negotiations which will clarify the global consensus on what specific steps should be taken. “Our No. 1 goal is to secure a meaningful international standard,” says Christopher Grundler, director of the E.P.A.’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality. “There are sound environmental reasons to do so. An international policy would secure far more greenhouse gas emissions reductions than a domestic-only plan.”
However, environmental groups are concerned that waiting will result in watered-down protections or worse, none at all. “Passing the buck to an international organization that’s virtually run by the airline industry won’t protect our planet from these rapidly growing emissions,” says Vera Pardee, senior counsel and supervising lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity. Environmental groups are also concerned because the finalization and implementation of these rules will almost certainly be stewarded by the next president, who may be very hostile towards the EPA’s current program.
Prior to the announcement, the commercial airline industry had voluntarily decided to limit its emissions growth by 2% per year until 2020, after which it would stop emissions growth completely. By 2050, the industry’s goal is to cut its emissions to 50% that of its 2005 level. This plan is not simply an act of good corporate citizenship; it would actually increase an airline’s bottom line. “We are driven to be really fuel-efficient because fuel is usually our No. 1 cost,” says Nancy Young, vice president for regulatory affairs at Airlines for America, “so, we are driven to be very carbon-efficient as well.”
Looking forward, it is not clear that future travelers will be flying on fossil-fueled airplanes or even traveling by air at all. Solar-powered airplanes are flying around the world, and hyper loops are being built in California. Though the regulations are controversial today, they may be moot relics of the past in a decade or two.