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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Aviation and Climate Change

James E. McCarthy
Specialist in Environmental Policy

Aircraft are a significant source of greenhouse gases—compounds that trap the sun's heat, with effects on the Earth's climate. In the United States, aircraft of all kinds are estimated to emit between 2.6% and 3.4% of the nation's total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, depending on whether one counts international air travel. The impact of U.S. aviation on climate change is perhaps twice that size when other factors are considered. These include the contribution of aircraft emissions to ozone formation, the water vapor and soot that aircraft emit, and the high altitude location of the bulk of aircraft emissions. Worldwide, aviation is projected to be among the faster-growing GHG sources. 

If Congress or the Administration decides to regulate aircraft GHG emissions, they face several choices. The Administration could use existing authority under Sections 231 and 211 of the Clean Air Act, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA has already been petitioned to do so by several states, local governments, and environmental organizations. Congress could address aviation or aviation fuels legislatively, through cap-and-trade or carbon tax proposals, or could require EPA to set emission standards. 

Among the legislative options, the cap-and-trade approach (setting an economy-wide limit on GHG emissions and distributing tradable allowances to emitters) has received the most attention. Most cap-and-trade bills, including the House-passed energy and climate bill, H.R. 2454, would include aviation indirectly, through emission caps imposed upstream on their source of fuel—the petroleum refining sector. By capping emissions upstream of air carriers and eventually lowering the cap more than 80%, bills such as these would have several effects: they would provide an incentive for refiners to produce lower-carbon fuels; they would increase the price of fuels, and thus increase the demand for more fuel-efficient aircraft; and they might increase the cost of aviation services relative to other means of transport, giving airline passengers and shippers of freight incentives to substitute lower-cost, lower-carbon alternatives. 

Besides regulating emissions directly or through a cap-and-trade program or carbon tax, there are other tools available to policy makers that can lower aviation's GHG emissions. These include implementation of the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System (not expected to be complete until 2025, although some elements that could reduce aircraft emissions may be implemented sooner); research and development of more fuel-efficient aircraft and engines; and perhaps the development of lower-carbon jet fuel. 

This report provides background on aviation emissions and the factors affecting them; it discusses the tools available to control emissions, including existing authority under the Clean Air Act and proposed economy-wide cap-and-trade legislation; and it examines international regulatory developments that may affect U.S. commercial airlines. These include the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme for greenhouse gases (EU-ETS), which is to include the aviation sector beginning in 2012, and discussions under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). 

Date of Report: January 27, 2010
Number of Pages: 14
Order Number: R40090
Price: $29.95

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