Sins of Omission

As the FAA seeks to expand air travel, is it giving concerns about aviation’s effects on climate change the attention they deserve?

Megan Tady August 15, 2007

As the Bush admin­is­tra­tion moves for­ward with plans to dou­ble or triple air traf­fic capac­i­ty by 2025, the gov­ern­ment may be plac­ing con­cerns about aviation’s impact on cli­mate change on stand-by. 

Con­gress cre­at­ed the Joint Plan­ning and Devel­op­ment Office (JPDO) in 2003 to insti­tute the Next Gen­er­a­tion Air Trans­porta­tion Sys­tem (NextGen), a pro­gram designed to trans­form America’s air traf­fic con­trol sys­tem to allow for increas­ing air trav­el. NextGen is housed with­in the FAA, but includes rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Depart­ments of Trans­porta­tion, Defense, Home­land Secu­ri­ty, and Com­merce, as well as from NASA and the White House Office of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy Policy. 

The NextGen pro­gram boasts sev­er­al new tech­no­log­i­cal reforms that promise to sig­nif­i­cant­ly [increase] the capac­i­ty, safe­ty, effi­cien­cy, and secu­ri­ty of air trans­porta­tion oper­a­tions.” But while the FAA main­tains that cli­mate change is a pil­lar for NextGen, mixed mes­sages abound about the strength of the foundation. 

Despite repeat­ed calls from the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty to take imme­di­ate and urgent action to mit­i­gate cli­mate change, the JPDO says its hands are tied on mov­ing quick­ly, cit­ing the gen­er­al sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus that uncer­tain­ties exist in link­ing avi­a­tion with cli­mate change. In stark con­trast to the Euro­pean Union, which has iden­ti­fied aviation’s cli­mate effects as the most sig­nif­i­cant adverse impact of avi­a­tion,” the Unit­ed States has placed air qual­i­ty and noise … [as] the cur­rent focus of atten­tion,” accord­ing to a 2004 FAA report. 

While the FAA calls cli­mate change the most seri­ous long-term envi­ron­men­tal issue,” two con­sec­u­tive NextGen progress reports to Con­gress in 2005 and 2006 have failed to include any men­tion of cli­mate change, much less how the over­haul of the avi­a­tion sys­tem might lead to an increase in the green­house gas emis­sions that con­tribute to cli­mate change. Instead, both reports only high­light noise pol­lu­tion and local air qual­i­ty as key envi­ron­men­tal issues affect­ing aviation’s capac­i­ty for growth. Cli­mate change does not make this list, nor does the JPDO sug­gest that they are con­sid­er­ing how capac­i­ty growth will affect cli­mate change. 

Even NextGen’s web­site sends a con­flict­ing mes­sage about its envi­ron­men­tal pri­or­i­ties. Although the site says the pro­gram is think­ing green,” it does not refer to cli­mate change out­right, only fuel con­sump­tion, in its list of pri­ma­ry envi­ron­men­tal concerns.” 

Rick Piltz, direc­tor of Cli­mate Sci­ence Watch, a watch­dog group spon­sored by the Gov­ern­ment Account­abil­i­ty Project, pub­lished a report in July crit­i­ciz­ing the FAA for neglect­ing cli­mate change in the con­gres­sion­al reports. If you’re doing strate­gic plan­ning and you’re report­ing to Con­gress about the stuff you’re doing, shouldn’t you at least be talk­ing about how a glob­al warm­ing emis­sions reduc­tion pol­i­cy would have some impli­ca­tions for the future of avi­a­tion pol­i­cy?” Piltz asks. 

Piltz says the FAA’s fail­ure to con­front cli­mate change is char­ac­ter­is­tic of an anti-reg­u­la­to­ry and anti-pre­pared­ness” admin­is­tra­tion that is noto­ri­ous for soft-ped­al­ing the issue. 

The Bush admin­is­tra­tion has a spe­cif­ic way of deal­ing with cli­mate change, which is, We will not reg­u­late emis­sions, we will manip­u­late or ignore the intel­li­gence about the prob­lem and the impli­ca­tions in order to con­form to our polit­i­cal mes­sage, and we will leave us unpre­pared,’” Piltz says. “[NextGen] is just one more exam­ple. Inside the gov­ern­ment, Bush admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials are steer­ing con­ver­sa­tion away from the con­nec­tion between avi­a­tion and glob­al warm­ing, instead of putting it out on the table.” 

But Carl Burleson, head of the JPDO Envi­ron­ment Work­ing Group and direc­tor of the FAA Office of Envi­ron­ment and Ener­gy, crit­i­cizes Piltz’s study for being fac­tu­al­ly inac­cu­rate. In par­tic­u­lar, Burleson points out that, despite Piltz’s claims green­house gas emis­sions from planes have been increas­ing, Bureau of Trans­porta­tion sta­tis­tics show CO2 emis­sions from jet fuel have actu­al­ly decreased by 5 per­cent since 2000, despite a growth in capacity. 

Burel­son also dis­putes that NextGen’s fail­ure to specif­i­cal­ly men­tion cli­mate change in its recent reports means that the FAA is indif­fer­ent to the prob­lem. He says the progress reports focused on issues that could imme­di­ate­ly affect avi­a­tion growth, such as noise pol­lu­tion, but that cli­mate change and ener­gy are not seen as imme­di­ate issues in terms of con­strain­ing capac­i­ty growth, but as poten­tial­ly long-term issues.” 

“[Cli­mate change] is not an imme­di­ate issue on capac­i­ty,” Burleson says. There are cer­tain envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors that restrain the capac­i­ty of the avi­a­tion sys­tem in the Unit­ed States today, and cer­tain­ly noise and local air qual­i­ty are two of those that def­i­nite­ly have impacts on the abil­i­ty of air­ports to expand, and basi­cal­ly the rela­tion­ship between com­mu­ni­ties and air­ports. Cli­mate is not in that cat­e­go­ry yet.” 

But while Burleson jus­ti­fies cli­mate change’s non­ap­pear­ance as a capac­i­ty issue, a 2004 report from the FAA to Con­gress dis­cussing the envi­ron­men­tal effects of air trans­porta­tion not­ed, Imme­di­ate action is required to address the inter­de­pen­dent chal­lenges of avi­a­tion noise, local air qual­i­ty and cli­mate impacts.” 

Much is still unknown about aviation’s effects of cli­mate change. In 2006, the FAA took a step toward unlock­ing some of the mys­tery by co-host­ing a work­shop in Boston to specif­i­cal­ly exam­ine cli­mate change and avi­a­tion. A pub­lished report of the work­shop stat­ed, The effect of air­craft emis­sions on the cur­rent and pro­ject­ed cli­mate of our plan­et may be the most seri­ous long-term envi­ron­men­tal issue fac­ing the avi­a­tion indus­try.” The work­shop, attend­ed by experts and aca­d­e­mics, con­clud­ed that sci­en­tif­ic uncer­tain­ties are slow­ing any plan to tack­le aviation’s cli­mate impact, and laid out a roadmap to con­duct fur­ther research. The call for more research was sound­ed again this year by the JPDO’s Envi­ron­men­tal Work­ing Group plan, which reit­er­at­ed the need to gain suf­fi­cient knowl­edge of cli­mate change effects of aviation.” 

Burleson says a bet­ter under­stand­ing of aviation’s cli­mate impact would lead to a more appro­pri­ate approach. We don’t want to in essence be tar­get­ing the wrong action, and cre­at­ing more of an issue,” he says. 

Piltz agrees that more research needs to be per­formed, but he lam­bastes the FAA as waf­fling under an exag­ger­at­ed sense” that there’s too much sci­en­tif­ic uncer­tain­ty” to take any action. So all they will say is, Yes, we’re talk­ing about cli­mate change. We acknowl­edge that it’s an issue so we’ll study the uncer­tain­ties and get back to you,’” Piltz says. 

The JPDO main­tains that NextGen, while adding more planes to the sky, will be bet­ter for the envi­ron­ment, as it cre­ates more direct plane routes and a qui­eter, more fuel-effi­cient descent approach for planes. FAA Admin­is­tra­tor Mar­i­on Blakey has laud­ed NextGen’s envi­ron­men­tal mer­its, claim­ing dur­ing a speech in June that “[a]t the very heart of our NextGen plan, we’re tak­ing a com­pre­hen­sive and sys­tem­at­ic approach to reduc­ing [aviation’s emis­sions] footprint.” 

But while build­ing NextGen’s envi­ron­men­tal cre­den­tials, Blakey and oth­er gov­ern­ment offi­cials have con­demned the Euro­pean Union for tak­ing more deci­sive action on cli­mate change and avi­a­tion; The EU is con­sid­er­ing includ­ing air car­ri­ers in a car­bon diox­ide emis­sions trad­ing scheme, which would sub­ject Amer­i­can planes to reg­u­la­tion. In a May speech, Blakey said, Try­ing to force a Euro­pean solu­tion on the world, giv­en the dif­fer­ent avi­a­tion sec­tors, eco­nom­ic cir­cum­stances, and envi­ron­men­tal issues of coun­tries, is unwork­able, not to men­tion ille­gal. In Europe, there are fac­tions work­ing to cur­tail avi­a­tion growth regard­less of the ben­e­fits we offer to the econ­o­my and qual­i­ty of life.” 

The air­line indus­try has also claimed that eco­nom­ic growth is at odds with envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty. Accord­ing to a 2007 sur­vey con­duct­ed by Sabre Air­line Solu­tions, only five per­cent of North Amer­i­can air­lines view envi­ron­men­tal issues as a major chal­lenge, while a major­i­ty ranked fuel costs as a press­ing concern. 

As long as U.S. car­ri­ers are focused on sur­vival and rebuild­ing their bal­ance sheets, and their reg­u­la­to­ry cli­mate is not push­ing hard, they will not like­ly embrace envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns as much as Euro­pean or oth­er regions’ car­ri­ers,” Steve Hen­drick­son, Sabre Air­line Solu­tions senior strate­gist, said in a press release. 

NextGen is turn­ing to sev­er­al air­line car­ri­ers for indus­try input on the pro­gram, as well as oth­er cor­po­rate inter­ests. Burleson says that sci­en­tists are also advis­ing the JPDO, and that the EPA is rep­re­sent­ed on the Envi­ron­men­tal Work­ing Group, though not on the JPDO Board. Only a hand­ful of envi­ron­men­tal groups are includ­ed in the Envi­ron­men­tal Work­ing Group, none of which deal direct­ly with cli­mate change. 

We did try to invite onto the Envi­ron­men­tal Work­ing Group a num­ber of envi­ron­men­tal groups ear­ly on, but frankly they weren’t ter­ri­bly inter­est­ed because they said they had a lot of dif­fer­ent things they were work­ing on, and rel­a­tive­ly speak­ing, avi­a­tion wasn’t their focus at that point,” Burel­son says. 

Con­gress is part­ly respon­si­ble for the lack of envi­ron­men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion on the JPDO Board and for cli­mate change’s poor rep­re­sen­ta­tion in NextGen’s progress reports. In leg­is­la­tion cre­at­ing the JPDO, Con­gress did not man­date the inclu­sion of the EPA or the Depart­ment of Ener­gy as mem­bers. There is also no men­tion of cli­mate change in the leg­is­la­tion, and only a vague order to review activ­i­ties relat­ing to noise, emis­sions, fuel con­sump­tion, and safe­ty con­duct­ed by Fed­er­al agencies.” 

The Bush administration’s ramp­ing up of air trav­el comes at a time when an increas­ing num­ber of voic­es are call­ing for con­sumers to curb the amount they fly. A 2007 press release from the UK chap­ter of Friends of the Earth said, We need to fly less, buy less, reg­u­late pol­luters and sup­port com­mu­ni­ties affect­ed by pol­lu­tion and cli­mate change.” The FAA says air­craft emis­sions account for 2 to 3 per­cent of the total U.S. green­house gas emissions. 

Piltz says he under­stands why there’s resis­tance to reduc­ing fly­ing because it’s not going to be com­fort­able to deal with.” 

To say cut back on going to the air­port? It flies in the face of the whole con­cept of being a mod­ern soci­ety,” he says, But I don’t think the way to deal with that as a demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety is to avoid talk­ing about it.”

Megan Tady is a blog­ger and video pro­duc­er for Free Press, the nation­al non­prof­it media reform orga­ni­za­tion. She writes a month­ly InThe​se​Times​.com col­umn on media issues. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @MegTady.
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