Some environmentalists are criticizing the impact that the aviation industry is having on our planet. They claim that aircraft emissions are hazardous to human health and are contributing to global warming. The Center for Biological Diversity is just one of many organizations in the process of suing the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect the public.

A fundamental concern is that carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides released into the atmosphere from airplanes create toxic smog, which can lead to potentially serious health conditions such as emphysema and asthma.  They also point out that the pollution results in ocean acidification, which is killing algae and causing coral bleaching.

Fox News reports that the EPA has issued a preliminary finding of endangerment that will ultimately lay the groundwork for the government to establish federal regulations. Proposed U.S. regulations would apply only to large planes like airliners and cargo jets; smaller jets, piston-engine planes, helicopters and military aircraft would be exempt.

A Call for Global Standards

Concern about aviation’s impact on the environment extends beyond the U.S.  Nancy Young of Airlines for America believes that it is “critical” that global emissions standards are established. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a branch of the United Nations, is working on international emissions standards. A final proposal is expected in February 2016, however regulations would not go into effect until 2020, at the earliest.

Although older aircraft are being phased out as Boeing and Airbus unveil lighter planes for domestic flights, and more fuel-efficient planes for long-distance international routes, a point of contention is that proposed ICAO standards would not apply to the older aircraft. Since planes generally remain in service for 20 years or more, it could be decades before the skies would be filled with planes meeting ICAO’s global standards.

Reducing the Carbon Footprint

When compared to automobiles, however, aviation is relatively clean. According to the Air Transport Action Group, the aviation industry produces about 2% of total annual global greenhouse gas emissions. Aviation is responsible for 12% of carbon dioxide emissions, compared to 74% from road transport.

As Megan Snedden reports on, the aviation industry is making some strides in terms of lessening its environmental impact. Between 1978 and 2014, U.S. airlines improved fuel efficiency by more than 120%. The industry is also working closely with sustainable biofuel companies to develop jet fuel alternatives that will not only reduce carbon emissions, but also provide some security against price fluctuations and dependency on foreign oil.

Air Transport Action Group reports that jets in service today are 70% more fuel efficient than jets in the 1960s. It is predicted that increased use of biofuels could help the industry achieve target standards. For example, if commercial aviation can get 6% of its fuel supply from biofuel by 2020, it could reduce its overall carbon footprint by 5%.

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