Print — Bloomberg BNA — Dec. 28, 2016
If you’re looking for an early signal on how soon-to-be President Donald Trump will handle the issue of climate change, you might want to keep your eyes on the skies.
Sometime next year, the Trump administration will need to decide whether to move forward with new carbon dioxide standards for airplanes. Its decision here could indicate whether the incoming president opposes reining in greenhouse gasses in all circumstances, or only when doing so could hurt business interests.
That’s because, unlike with many other climate regulations, U.S. aviation companies have embraced the regulation of carbon dioxide from its industry’s jets.
These companies fear that federal inaction here will put them at a disadvantage with their foreign counterparts once a set of landmark international greenhouse gas standards goes into effect in a few years. They also worry about the precedent that would be set by a reversal on an international agreement that the U.S. agreed to under the current administration.
“This issue is put to bed already. Why pick this fight?” Edward Smith, head of international and environmental affairs with the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, told Bloomberg BNA. “It would make the U.S. industry less competitive around the world. It would be like suicide. It would be ridiculous.”
The Trump transition team did not respond to requests for comment from Bloomberg BNA.
The ball will be in the Trump administration’s court next year, after a 2016 that saw the international community enact major carbon dioxide emissions standards for aircraft.
Though the aviation industry emits a small fraction of the world’s greenhouse gasses—well under 5 percent by most estimates—its emissions are growing more rapidly than those from cars, power plants or any other industrial sector, according to Vera Pardee, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, who has been leading the charge for carbon standards in the U.S.
In October, the general assembly of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization adopted standards for new airplane designs that would begin to take effect in 2020. The measure, which was supported by the U.S. and dozens of other countries, would require a minimum level of fuel efficiency from all jet engines in new plane models.
The next step will be for federal authorities in all of the parties to ICAO to formally write these new standards into law in their respective countries.
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The Obama administration, through its Environmental Protection Agency, already laid the groundwork for this earlier this year. In July, the EPA finalized its aircraft endangerment finding, a formal declaration that carbon emissions from airplanes threaten the environment via climate change and should be regulated under the Clean Air Act.
But despite this requirement, the Trump administration has several options at its disposal if it doesn’t want to enact CO2 standards for airplanes. It could attempt to rescind the endangerment finding or simply delay enacting the aircraft standards, though that may spur new lawsuits from environmental advocates.
Regardless of the method used, if Trump’s EPA fails to adopt the ICAO carbon dioxide standards into law, there will be real self-inflicted damage to the U.S. aviation industry, according to several industry trade groups that spoke to Bloomberg BNA.
Smith, of the aviation manufacturers group, said U.S. aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Lockheed Martin would feel the pain most acutely; once the ICAO standards take effect, it would become uncertain whether they would still be able to sell their planes overseas in countries that adopted the international rules. These countries may not accept planes made by U.S. companies if there’s no federal agency that can certify the planes meet international standards, he said.
“It’s a global industry,” Smith said. “The manufacturing, supply chain and market for all planes in the world is global. Nobody is going to build a plane that you can only fly in half the world or a third of the world. That’s crazy.”
An even bigger concern is that other countries will retaliate against U.S. aviation companies for reversing course on this international agreement, according to Leslie Riegle, director of environmental policy with the Aerospace Industries Association.
“It’s really hard to predict. … Taking away any part of that puzzle would be damaging to the industry,” Riegle said. “It’s always a danger when you back away from a global agreement that there might be repercussions.”
And it’s not just the aviation industry that’s advocating for these emissions regulations. The National Association of Manufacturers, which fiercely opposed many of the Obama administration’s environmental actions, called on Trump to commit to the ICAO standards to maintain “a level playing field for aircraft manufacturers” in the group’s policy white paper for the incoming administration.
If the Trump administration does decide to implement the airplane standards, Riegle said, it doesn’t have much room for delay since the agency’s regulatory development process can take years and the ICAO rules take effect in 2020.
But while enacting these aircraft regulations would seem like a win-win for Trump, one that would simultaneously please business interests and counter the left’s worst fears about him, there are plenty of indications he may choose not to.
Trump famously said on the campaign trail that climate change is a hoax, despite voluminous scientific data to the contrary. And, after winning the election, the president-elect has selected several people to serve in his cabinet who question the validity of climate science, such as Trump’s pick to head the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R). To adopt the ICAO aircraft standards, the Trump administration would have to at least tacitly acknowledge that climate change is real.
Additionally, Trump has not shied away from threatening to renegotiate or outright withdraw the U.S. from other international agreements, such as NAFTA, the Paris climate accord and even NATO.
And, to make matters even more complicated, Trump’s relationship with airline manufacturers is already strained after his recent social media melees with Boeing and Lockheed Martin over the cost of their government contracts.