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Ready for Takeoff: Embarking on a Journey to Regulate Aircraft Greenhouse Gas Emissions at Home and Abroad

Ready for Takeoff: Embarking on a Journey to Regulate Aircraft Greenhouse Gas Emissions at Home and Abroad

Miranda Jensen

Air travel is among the fastest growing modes of transportation in the world.[1] It is not only quick, but also increasingly affordable.[2] Businesspeople, students, and tourists alike can travel by plane across the United States or across the world in a matter of hours. However, this growing popularity in air transportation also means increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from more aircraft in the air. To put the level of GHG emissions from aviation into perspective, “[s]omeone flying from London to New York and back generates roughly the same level of emissions as the average person in the EU does by heating their home for a whole year.”[3] Not surprisingly, aircraft emissions are among the fastest growing type of GHG emissions worldwide.[4] Indeed, for most of us, air travel is the largest portion of our carbon footprints.[5] Historically, these emissions have been left to the industry and individual countries to regulate.[6] But that is changing.

Two major recent events indicate regulation of aircraft GHG emissions is on the horizon. First, the EPA issued an endangerment finding for six GHG emissions from certain aircraft.[7] Second, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN specialized body on international aircraft regulation, issued two measures as part of its goal to obtain carbon neutral growth in aircraft GHG emissions by 2020.[8] One of these measures includes the first ever global standards for aircraft GHG emissions.[9] With the endangerment finding, the United States EPA is now positioned to implement ICAO’s new standards, as well as its own U.S. domestic regulations. These developments are essential to mitigating climate change and attaining the global goal of keeping the temperature rise below 2˚ Celsius.[10]

This Note will provide background information on aviation emissions regulation and lay out a model that the United States should follow to adopt regulations domestically. Part I will offer an overview of some of the problems associated with global warming and the need to reduce GHGs. This section will also briefly discuss international climate change treaties, including the goals of the Paris Agreement and the United States’ nationally determined contribution. The second part of this Note will soar through the history of aircraft emissions regulations, both in the U.S. and in the European Union. This section will also include a discussion of the ways the aviation industry has voluntarily worked to reduce its carbon footprint. Next, Part III will lay out the recent EPA and ICAO developments in greater detail. Finally, Part IV will discuss the next steps for the U.S. in terms of adopting regulations for domestic aircraft GHG emissions and effectively implementing them. This part of the Note will also detail the most important characteristics of an effective EPA rule regulating GHG emissions from aircraft. Finally, this Note will conclude by summarizing the shortfalls of this regulation scheme and offer considerations for policymakers going forward.  

Questions and inquiries regarding this Note may be forwarded to the author at

[1] Suzana Kahn Ribeiro, et al., Transport and Its Infrastructure, in Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change 324, 334 (Ranjan Bose and Haroon Kheshgi, eds., 2007),   

[2] Derek Thompson, How Airline Ticket Prices Fell 50% in 30 Years (and Why Nobody Noticed), The Atlantic, Feb. 28, 2013,

[3] Reducing Emissions from Aviation, European Commission Climate Action, (last visited Oct. 24, 2016).

[4] Reducing Emissions from Aviation, Climate Action, European Commission, (last updated Oct. 7, 2016).

[5] See CoolClimate Network, (last visited Oct. 24, 2016) to calculate your carbon footprint.

[6] See Regulations for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Aircraft, EPA, (last updated Oct. 21, 2016) (noting that EPA regulation actions began in 2011).

[7] Finding That Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Aircraft Cause or Contribute to Air Pollution that May Reasonably Be Anticipated to Endanger Public Health and Welfare, 81 Fed. Reg. 54422 (Aug. 15, 2016) (to be codified at 40 C.F.R. pt. 87 and 1068).

[8] Miranda Jensen, Global Aviation CO2 Emissions Cap Almost Clear for Takeoff, Substantial & Sustained: COP22/CMP12 Observer Delegation Blog (Oct. 10, 2016),

[9] Historic Agreement Reached to Mitigate International Aviation Emissions, ICAO (Oct. 6, 2016),

[10] See Paris Agreement, art. 2, Dec. 12, 2015, (striving to keep the world’s temperature below 2˚C above pre-industrial levels, while trying to limit that increase to 1.5˚C).


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