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Nations Agree to Curb Aircraft Emissions

In July the EPA officially acknowledged that aircraft emissions are a danger to human health. (Arpingstone/Wikimedia Commons)
In July the EPA officially acknowledged that aircraft emissions are a danger to human health. (Arpingstone/Wikimedia Commons)
October 10, 2016

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Almost 200 countries have agreed to a United Nations plan to cut carbon pollution from aircraft, but environmentalists say the agreement doesn't go far enough.

By 2050, emissions from civilian aircraft could constitute a quarter of the world's remaining carbon budget, the maximum allowable to avoid the worst effects of global climate change. Sarah Burt, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, said the plan adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization is an important milestone.

"This is the first time that a majority of countries around the world got together to agree to do something,” Burt said. "Unfortunately, what they've agreed to is not particularly ambitious, but it's a first step."

The agreement - which will be voluntary through 2026 - limits emissions from international flights through the purchase of pollution offsets.

Verifying that offsets actually result in reductions in carbon emissions will be difficult and will depend on rules that haven’t yet been finalized, according to Burt. But there are ways to get real results.

"There are technologies and operational adjustments that can be made now and many more that are in development that would actually reduce emissions from aviation itself,” Burt said.

In July, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officially acknowledged that carbon pollution from airplanes endangers human welfare. But the agency hasn’t developed rules to reduce emissions.

U.S. aircraft were responsible for almost half of all CO2 emissions from aviation worldwide. Burt said the EPA has the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate those emissions.

"They really should be using that regulatory incentive to make sure that, in addition to purchasing offsets, the airlines are doing all that they can to reduce their own emissions,” she said.

The international agreement included a three-year review provision that Burt said could be an opportunity to strengthen emissions-reduction requirements.

More information is available at Earthjustice.org.


Andrea Sears, Public News Service - CT