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Airplane pollution set to soar with post-pandemic travel boom

As vaccines ramp up and summer beckons, Americans are flying again, eager to make up for a year largely grounded from visiting friends, family and desired destinations.

Last month saw the highest daily average of air travel passengers since the start of the pandemic. Travel between the U.S. and Mexico is already shaping up to exceed 2019 levels. Europe has announced it’s opening up to vaccinated American visitors this summer.

But as the number of airplanes crossing our skies increases again, so do the massive greenhouse gas emissions that come from burning jet fuel. And in the urgent fight to preserve a livable planet, those emissions matter immensely.

The Biden administration has to act soon to put this polluting industry on a more sustainable course.

Worldwide, aircraft are responsible for about 5 percent of global-heating pollution. Flights from the U.S. are responsible for about one-quarter of those emissions.

Over the last decade, airplane emissions increased by 44 percent, as growing passenger traffic outpaced efficiency improvements.

Ahead of the coronavirus pandemic, emissions were set to triple by 2050, consuming more than one-quarter of the emissions budget we have left to keep global temperature rise below a dangerous 1.5 degrees Celsius.

And while air travel dropped dramatically during 2020, air travel and tourism associations don’t expect the pandemic to reduce air travel in the long run. That expectation is consistent with the rebound we’re already seeing.

Yet, global-heating pollution from the aviation sector is woefully underregulated.

Global fuel efficiency standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization fail to address the problem. They don’t take effect until 2028, don’t apply to aircraft already in service and are so weak that the majority of new aircraft delivered in 2019 already met the future standard.

The Trump administration, which adopted the international regulations into law in January, admitted they wouldn’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft.

Offsetting programs aren’t going to be the answer either, given the mounting evidence that carbon offsets have failed to actually bring about emissions reductions, wasting precious time we have to reduce emissions and harming communities in the process.

The aviation industry, aiming to appear climate-conscious, is increasingly promotingsustainable” aviation fuels. But many of these fuels don’t actually reduce emissions when you take into account their full life-cycle impacts. The technology to turn more novel fuel sources like algae into jet fuel hasn’t been commercialized yet. And we simply don’t have the trees, crops or even waste animal fat to run the aviation sector on biofuels.

In a hopeful sign, the Biden administration has identified aviation emission standards as an area for the Environmental Protection Agency to review. But if President Biden truly wants to lead on climate, he needs to steer clear of the window-dressing and the greenwashing and take real action. 

The only truly effective solution is a new greenhouse gas emission standard that meaningfully cuts actual emissions from aircraft engines. It needs to apply fleetwide to existing aircraft as well as new ones, starting now. It must take into account the emissions reductions achievable through operational improvements as well as new designs. 

Emissions targets must decline over time to ensure that improvements keep happening, with the goal of true decarbonization of the sector through electrification. Electrification is already on the horizon for aviation, and a report by my organization shows how strong rules can drive the deep and rapid emissions reductions we need.

Most importantly, President Biden must develop airplane pollution standards quickly, before a post-pandemic travel surge makes those greenhouse gas emissions take off again.

Clare Lakewood is the legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute.

Energy and Environment