Commentary: Congress, industry must act to make U.S. Aviation cleaner, greener

Rep. Rick Larsen

Right now, Congress is debating an historic, FDR-like investment in the nation’s infrastructure to create U.S. jobs, drive economic recovery and turn the corner on having a cleaner and greener transportation system.

As chair of the House Aviation Subcommittee, I recognize that aviation and aerospace mean well-paying jobs in the Pacific Northwest and across the U.S. More than 130,000 women and men are employed by over 1,300 aerospace-related companies in my home state of Washington. But, as the world celebrates the 51st Earth Day, I also recognize aviation’s contributions to climate change. The aviation and aerospace industry are responsible for 9 percent of carbon emissions in U.S. transportation, and up to 3 percent of total emissions globally.[1] Clearly, Congress and the industry must act to reduce the sector’s environmental footprint.

The U.S. aviation’s response to climate change must be multifaceted. Without immediate action, the U.S. risks losing its competitive edge in cleaner aviation technologies. In June 2019, 23 European aviation stakeholder groups, research organizations and universities signed a Joint Declaration acknowledging the Paris Agreement’s goals and urging a diligent response from the aviation sector to reduce carbon emissions. Although President Biden recently signed an Executive Order to rejoin the Paris Agreement, the U.S. must make up for lost time to ensure it remains a leader in the global fight against climate change.

In addition, the FAA and EPA must continue to develop and issue guidance on aircraft design standards, emissions data collection and monitoring to meet the ambitious objectives outlined in the 2016 International Civil Aviation Organization’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) agreement. In December 2020, EPA finalized a rule adopting emission standards for new commercial aircraft to help put U.S. aviation manufacturers on a level playing field with manufacturers in other countries.

While much more needs to be done, progress has been made. Recent Congressional action has shown our renewed commitment to environmental stewardship, such as the House-passed Moving Forward Act, which includes new investments I championed to build resiliency, foster zero-emission technologies and develop sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). I am committed to ensuring robust funding for the FAA’s Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions and Noise (CLEEN) program, which supports the advancement of SAF to move the aviation industry to reduce carbon emissions.

In Washington, the Port of Seattle is working toward achieving its goal of powering every flight fueled at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with at least a 10 percent blend of SAF by 2028. The Dutch airline KLM is also partnering with Microsoft to cooperate on sustainable air travel initiatives, including the purchase of SAF. To keep pace with growing demand, Congress must fully fund research and development so SAF adoption can play a larger part in reducing carbon emissions in aviation.

The future of cleaner fuels is not only in SAF. Companies like magniX in my district are developing electric propulsion systems for smaller aircraft. Further, Airbus hopes to deliver aircraft hydrogen- powered by 2035. ZeroAvia also seeks to use hydrogen as its fuel source in its proposed propulsion system. While electric and hydrogen-propulsion bring their share of limitations, I support the development of these technologies and its application to cut carbon emissions from air travel.

With newer and cleaner fuels, airports will need to invest in supporting ground infrastructure. That’s why I am currently working with my colleagues on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to ensure airports have access to critical funding that would support that investment.

Another sustainable innovation concept is the growth of Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), sometimes called “air taxis.” I recently met with NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate who noted nearly 100 different companies are considering AAM as an opportunity to help meet environmental goals and create jobs. The carbon emission reduction opportunity tied to AAM is on the ground, moving people over traffic congestion using largely electric or hybrid-electric aircraft. As the FAA considers certification of the first air taxis this year, the industry must do more to ensure equitable access to these services of.

When the world celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970, reducing emissions from air travel was science fiction. More than 50 years later, that is no longer the case. Public and private investment is bringing cleaner and greener aerospace technologies closer to fruition. Consumers demand the aviation industry show its commitment to fighting climate change, and while several airlines are taking some action, the traveling public expects more. However, the burden is not just on airlines. The federal government must lead through continued investment in research and development that results in, well, results. This week, the Biden administration is expected to announce a proposal to cut U.S. carbon emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. I support this pledge, and I also support moving the country to a net-zero carbon emission economy by 2050 at the latest.

The future of greener travel is not a choice between planes and other modes of transportation, like high-speed rail and electric buses. The U.S. can have, and the public is demanding, a cleaner and greener transportation system. Let’s not wait until the 52nd Earth Day to make an aggressive and progressive investment in the nation’s infrastructure to lay the runway—and the tracks, roads and bridges—for the future. The sky is the limit.

— By U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Everett) is Chair of the House Aviation Subcommittee and a senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Larsen represents Washington’s Second Congressional District, which stretches from Mountlake Terrace in the south to Bellingham in the north and includes all of Island and San Juan counties.


[1] Fast Facts: U.S. Transportation Sector Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 1990-2018 (EPA-420-F-20-037, June 2020)

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