Despite modest gains in fuel efficiency, domestic airlines continue to pump larger and larger quantities of planet-warming pollution into the atmosphere.

Airlines increased their fuel efficiency by 3 percent on average last year, according to a new report from the International Council on Clean Transportation. But overall, the gains were not enough to offset rising greenhouse gas emissions from the domestic industry, which released 7 percent more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than last year.

“A big takeaway is that despite voluntary efforts from the airlines to improve their fuel efficiency, CO2 emissions from air travel continue to grow rapidly,” said Dan Rutherford, program director for marine and aviation at the ICCT and a co-author of the report.

The report looked at 13 airlines that operated in the United States in 2018, including Alaska Airlines, American Airlines Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., Frontier Airlines and United Airlines Inc.

Frontier performed the best, improving its fuel efficiency by 4 percent through investments in newer planes and more direct routes.

But other airlines were laggards. JetBlue Airways Corp. performed at the bottom of the pack, burning 26 percent more fuel than Frontier on comparable flights last year.

A proliferation of new flights—and seats available on those flights—has been a major contributor to rising carbon dioxide emissions.

As airlines continued to add new routes last year, passengers traveled 10 percent more miles and airlines burned 7 percent more fuel, according to the report.

“In 2014, there was that big oil price collapse, and fuel got cheaper,” Rutherford said. “The U.S. airlines reacted by increasing the number of flights and seats available. And customers really responded to that.”

Goals and rules

The report comes as the Federal Aviation Administration works toward a goal of carbon-neutral growth for the industry by 2020.

The goal dates back to 2015, when President Obama was in office. But it remains in effect under President Trump, whose administration has sought to roll back or delay Obama-era environmental regulations for coal plants and cars.

“Probably this administration would like to forget about it,” Rutherford said. “But right now, it’s still on the books.”

Perhaps surprisingly, EPA is preparing to issue the first-ever greenhouse gas emissions limits for planes (Climatewire, May 29).

The agency is mulling the new carbon rules in response to a forthcoming mandate from the International Civil Aviation Organization.

ICAO, a specialized body of the United Nations, proposed international limits on aircraft carbon emissions in 2017. The limits are slated to take effect for new planes on Jan. 1, 2020, and for existing planes in 2028.

Still, clean aviation experts view the ICAO rules as too lenient.

“The ICAO standards themselves are pretty weak,” Clare Lakewood, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, previously told E&E News.

“They’re basically an anti-backsliding provision,” Lakewood said. “They require CO2 reductions of 4 percent over 12 years. The market forces alone are predicted to achieve efficiency gains of about 10 percent.”

Rutherford agreed.

“From our perspective, we need not only a new standard, but a more stringent standard,” he said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news