At international climate talks earlier this month, the U.S. tried to prove to the rest of the world that it would once again be a leader in tackling climate change after several years of backpedaling under President Donald Trump. The Biden administration committed to a suite of flashy pledges to end deforestation, cut emissions of the greenhouse gas methane, and achieve a carbon-neutral aviation industry by 2050.
“The United States is not only back at the table, but hopefully leading by the power of our example,” said President Joe Biden in a speech to world leaders at the start of COP26. “I know it hasn’t been the case, and that’s why my administration is working overtime to show that our climate commitment is action, not words.”
But since the conference ended, Biden’s actions have not instilled confidence. Environmental groups lambasted the administration on Wednesday for moving forward with an enormous sale of oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. With 80 million acres available, it was the largest Gulf lease sale in U.S. history and could lock in oil and gas production there for the next several decades. This, despite Biden’s campaign promise to fully end the oil and gas leasing program on federal lands and waters and his pledge to the rest of the world at COP26 that the U.S. will cut emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Ultimately, about 1.7 million acres were sold — an area larger than the state of Delaware.
While the irony of a massive lease sale following the climate conference garnered much attention this week, it wasn’t the only sign of dissonance between Biden’s performance at COP26 and his actions at home. On Monday, just days after the U.S. unveiled its roadmap for net-zero aviation by 2050, Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, announced that it would not revise its emissions standard for airplanes. The current standard was finalized in the last days of the Trump administration, even after the EPA had determined that it would not actually reduce emissions.
Trump’s EPA simply adopted regulations that were developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, several years earlier. Dan Rutherford, who directs the aviation program at the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation told Grist that the standards apply to new aircraft and require changes to plane efficiency that manufacturers are already making. Past research by Rutherford’s organization found that the average aircraft made in 2019 would have already surpassed the standard by 6 percent.
“It’s part of a continued evasion of responsibility,” said Rutherford. “Even as the U.S. is making pretty positive claims about net-zero emissions from aviation — that just happened at the COP last week — and then everyone flies back and says, oh, yeah, but we’re not actually going to require anything from our companies. It’s just a real contradiction.”
The news is an especially big blow to 10 states that filed a lawsuit against the EPA after the Trump rule was finalized. Two of those states, New York and California, have ambitious greenhouse gas reduction laws, and planes are responsible for about 10 percent of their emissions. But states do not have authority to regulate the industry, so they are relying on the EPA to ensure the industry doesn’t lock in high emissions for decades to come.
When Biden took office, he issued an executive order directing the EPA to revisit the standard, putting the lawsuit on hold. But on Monday, the agency formally declined to change it, pointing to other efforts by the Biden administration to cut emissions from planes. In September, Biden announced a series of policies to increase the production and use of sustainable aviation fuel, which can be swapped in for traditional jet fuel but is typically made from waste oils and fats, giving it a lower carbon footprint. The EPA also said it would “press for ambitious new international CO2 standards” at an upcoming new cycle of negotiations with the United Nations aviation organization. Last time, it took about eight years of negotiations to reach an international standard.
Joe Goffman, the acting head of the EPA Air and Radiation office, defended the decision to Reuters, saying rewriting the rule “would have been disruptive for our industry, it would have been disruptive for the international process and in the three-dimensional world not gained us anything.”
But Rutherford had a different take on the EPA’s decision. “It’s the definition of insanity,” he said, “to try and do the same thing over again with different results.”