The EPA's Chance to Make Air Travel Greener

Aim high, EPA!

Photographer: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency's intention to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from airplanes may sound like a small thing. U.S. aircraft are responsible for just 3 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and 0.5 percent of total emissions worldwide. In the U.S., coal-fired power plants generate almost seven times as much carbon dioxide as planes.

But air travel grows by 5 percent a year, and by 2050, if nothing changes, the industry will consume more than one-quarter of the world's remaining "carbon budget" -- the amount of CO2 that can be emitted without increasing global temperatures more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The EPA's challenge now is to ensure that its limits are great enough to make a difference. The agency says its rules will be "at least as stringent" as those being developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which call for new aircraft to use just 4 percent less fuel than the average plane uses today, starting in 2028.

The EPA needs to resist pressure from the airline industry to settle on such a low standard.

Tougher limits are almost certainly possible. Aircraft manufacturers could reduce emissions from new planes by as much as 25 percent by 2024, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. That would raise the price of a typical plane by a third, which is no small cost. But savings on fuel and other costs could offset that increase after seven years. And in this, or in any effort to lower greenhouse-gas emissions, it is essential to take the long view.

The airline industry says those projections are overly optimistic. And there's always a danger that airlines will pass the greater upfront costs on to passengers.

But recall that, in 1975, when Congress first passed mandatory fuel-efficiency standards for automakers, the head of General Motors warned that Americans would be forced to drive cars no bigger than the Chevy Nova. Today, the company's best seller is the Silverado truck. In the meantime, average fuel efficiency has doubled.

Before setting its airplane emissions limits, the EPA should undertake the same rigorous process it applies in assessing any regulation: Calculate how much reduction is technologically feasible, and what benefits and costs that would bring. It won't be surprising if the cut it comes up with is greater than 4 percent.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.