VICE News is closely tracking global environmental change. Check out the Tipping Point blog here.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set in motion on Wednesday a process that could lead to federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions for the aviation industry. The agency issued a proposed endangerment finding that says specific pollutants from planes, like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, are a public health threat because they contribute to climate change.
"Globally, aviation is responsible for about 700 million metric tons of CO2 per year," Daniel Rutherford of the International Council on Clean Transportation, a research organization, told VICE News. In fact, if the worldwide aviation industry as a whole was ranked as if it were a country, it would be the seventh-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, trailing Germany, he said.
"It's currently unregulated at the global level, and overall emissions are expected to triple by 2050," Rutherford added.
[ooyalacontent_id="w5bzlvdDppmtKOihfKqMI7GkyzfvuAxk"player_id="YjMwNmI4YjU2MGM5ZWRjMzRmMjljMjc5" auto_play="1" skip_ads="0"]
American planes alone comprise 29 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of the airline industry globally, the EPA said, and domestically airplanes account for 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector.
Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe, who chairs the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, spoke out against the announcement.
"American air carriers have already made great strides in fuel efficiency and many have committed to a 1.5 percent annual fuel efficiency improvement through 2020," he said. "Adding the EPA into the equation will only increase costs without any substantial benefit."
Airlines for America represents US carriers and said the industry is making great strides toward reducing emissions.
"US airlines are green and we are getting even greener," Nancy Young, Vice President for Environmental Affairs, said in a statement. "The technology, operations, and infrastructure initiatives that our airlines are undertaking to further address [greenhouse gas] emissions are designed to responsibly and effectively limit their carbon emissions and potential climate change impacts while allowing them to continue to serve as drivers of US and global economies."
The EPA said it would coordinate its efforts with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the United Nations charged with promoting global aviation standards.
Environmental groups stressed that federal regulators should impose more stringent greenhouse gas emissions targets for the industry than what is currently under consideration by ICAO.
"This is a step forward on a major source of climate pollution," the Sierra Club's John Coequyt told VICE News. "We will absolutely push EPA to go beyond what ICAO does, if what ICAO does is insufficient. I think it makes sense for EPA to try to harmonize regulations to the extent that they're effective, and that's what they're doing."
Coequyt added that new regulation could be a boon for the big plane makers because it might promote interest in their latest, most fuel-efficient planes, the Airbus A350 and Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.
Vera Pardee, senior council for Center for Biological Diversity, called the EPA's announcement "really significant."
"Once that endangerment finding is finalized, EPA has no choice — it must regulate," she told VICE News.
But she's only halfway pleased by the news.
"The concern is that the standards are woefully insufficient that are being considered," Pardee said. Speaking about the ICAO, she added: "The airline industry dominates them."
Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger