New EPA Aircraft Emission Standard ‘Too Weak’ To Encourage New Aircraft And Engine Technologies, ICCT Finds

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed new emissions standards for aircraft fall short of expectations and is “too weak to accelerate investment in more fuel-efficient aircraft and engines,” according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.

The environmental research organization, which specializes in tracking the environmental performance of the aviation sector, warns that the proposed EPA standard “lags existing aircraft technologies by more than 10 years.”

That determination is based on an in-depth study that will be published in a forthcoming ICCT report this August.

“Our latest analysis suggests that the average new aircraft delivered in 2019 was already about 6% more fuel-efficient than EPA would require in 2028,” says Sola Zheng, lead author of the ICCT study. “The United States will need a more ambitious standard if it is to meet its goal of carbon neutral growth for its carriers starting this year.” 

While the EPA standard will bring the U.S. closer to the international aircraft CO2 standard established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 2016, it does not account for the fact that many new aircraft delivered in 2016 already met ICAO’s 2028 efficiency requirements.

What is more, the most advanced new aircraft already out perform the EPA proposed standard by 10%–20%, on average. 

“In the closing months of President Trump’s first term, EPA is proposing an aircraft standard that would be obsolete the day it is finalized,” says Dan Rutherford, ICCT’s aviation program director. “This administration—or the next administration—should tighten the standard in a way that can support new markets for U.S. manufacturers.” 

ICCT suggests that the EPA should apply the CO2 standard to in-service aircraft, instead of just to new aircraft. That would encourage airlines to update their fleet, acquiring more efficient planes.

The ICCT has previously reported that the mix of older and newer aircraft in the fleet has significant environmental impact. The “carbon intensity of airlines flying to and from U.S. airports varies by up to 26% over their networks, and by 50% and more on nonstop international flights. Differences of 80% or more have been observed at the route level.”

By setting higher standards, the EPA would also be supporting the U.S. aerospace sector, the ICCT argues, creating new market opportunities for Boeing, GE, and Pratt & Whitney.

“The use of flexibility mechanisms like averaging and banking would allow standards to be set based on the performance of the best aircraft rather than the worst,” the ICCT states. “Such mechanisms could enable more ambitious, cost-effective reductions, and are already in place in similar standards for passenger cars and commercial trucks.”

Manufacturers would also be encouraged to develop more fuel-efficient designs. According to a technology assessment performed by ICCT, the fuel burn reduction of new aircraft could be ramped up to 2.2% annually through 2034.

While the coronavirus crisis has put airlines in a difficult position to acquire new aircraft, there is still a trend towards greater fuel efficiency—as demonstrated by airlines’ recent decision to stop operating less efficient aircraft, including BA’s decision to ground the Queen of the Skies Boeing 747.

A push for newer technology through more stringent EPA standards, could save airlines money by reducing their fuel spending from 2025 through 2050 by 19%, according to the ICCT.

The organization suggests that the “EPA should go back to the drawing board” and “finalize more meaningful standards.” The ICCT also suggests that ICAO’s standards could also be made more stringent and better aligned with new aircraft and engine technologies. 

Earlier this month, the International Air Transport Association, which represents 290 airlines that account for 82% of total air traffic, welcomed ICAO’s decision to remove 2020 from the baseline calculations of its CORSIA agreement for carbon neutral growth. This decision, which earned some criticism from environmental groups, reflects the unusual nature of 2020 air traffic with the coronavirus pandemic grounding the world’s fleet for a prolonged period and significantly reducing aircraft demand.

Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO described the decision to exclude 2020 in baseline calculations as “pragmatic” but insisted that airlines are still committed to carbon-neutral operations.

“Aviation was the first industry sector in the world for which governments agreed a global carbon offsetting measure,” de Juniac said. “Airlines know that sustainability is their license to grow.”

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