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The extent of just how much of a problem airports CO₂ is – and therefore, the effect it has on the climate crisis – has been revealed. Shockingly, research shows that just 20 airports contributed the CO₂ equivalent of 58 coal plants – but there’s more, with London being one of the worst offenders.

Flying is killing us all

New research from global affairs thinktank ODI, in partnership with Transport & Environment and with data provided by the International Council on Clean Transportation, reveals the climate and air quality impacts of 1,300 airports.

The updated 2024 Airport Tracker, a global inventory of CO₂ and air pollution at the airport level, shows the disproportionate climate and health impact of just a small number of airports. You can view the tracker here.

It revealed that:

  • The top 20 most polluting airports produced the same amount of dangerous Nitrogen Oxides and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) as 31m passenger cars in 2019.
  • Just 20 airports generated 231m tonnes of CO₂, the same amount as 58 coal plants in 2019, the year for which latest data is available.
  • In 2019 alone, the most polluting airport, Dubai International, produced the same emissions as five coal plants.
  • In 2019, London’s six airports generated the same amount of air pollution as 3.23m cars.

Airports CO₂: the worst offenders

The research found that in 2019, combining impacts of passenger and freight transport, Dubai International Airport produced the equivalent CO₂ emissions of 5.03 coal plants, while Heathrow produced the equivalent of 4.77 coal plants.

Many cities have multiple airports, multiplying their impact; London’s six airports together produced 27m tonnes of CO₂ in 2019 alone – the same as nearly seven coal plants – and 8,900 tonnes of NOx and 83 tonnes of PM2.5.

ODI’s report is supported by new research from Stay Grounded, a network aimed at reducing air traffic and building a climate-just transport system, and UECNA, an umbrella for airport community groups. Their new report also released today shows significant health consequences of the aviation sector, and outlines steps to counter climate, air and noise pollution.

Globally, air pollution is the 4th largest risk factor for human health, killing 6.7 million people in 2019, and in 2018, air pollution had associated economic costs of £166bn to the European economy.

This new research draws the aviation sector’s decarbonisation strategy into focus, which hedges on a sharp increase in the supply of expensive so-called Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs).

Stop flying

Currently, so-called SAFs account for only 0.1% of jet fuel consumption and effective decarbonisation would require production increasing from a few hundred million litres today to over 400bn litres by 2050.

Expected efficiency gains from technological advancements are likely to be offset by increased demand as the industry bounces back; in November 2023, demand had already reached 99% of pre-pandemic levels, with growth expected to increase by a further 4.2% per year from 2024 onwards.

If current growth trajectories continue and the uptake of clean technologies does not accelerate, emissions generated by airports will boom, putting millions of people at risk.

Magdalena Heuwieser, press officer from Stay Grounded said:

Aircraft noise levels are continuously exceeded, and we completely lack EU standards on ultrafine particles, which are a major health hazard. Some key measures must be taken immediately to protect the health of workers and communities surrounding airports – like night flight bans, or simple jet fuel improvements to have at least the same standards as car fuel.

But technology won’t solve the whole problem, a reduction of the number of flights is most effective and needed.

Airports CO₂: nothing changes

Shandelle Steadman, senior research officer at ODI said:

This research shows the gaps in decarbonising aviation. Airports aren’t reporting these emissions and often slip under the radar, but without tackling localised emissions at the airport level, the sector’s climate and health impact will only worsen; damaging our health, livelihoods and climate.

Sam Pickard, Research Associate at ODI, said:

Airports are long-term infrastructure, so choices now affect climate and air quality far into the future. More has to be done to recognise these impacts and limit expansion in many parts of the world”

Jo Dardenne, Aviation Director at T&E said:

Pollution around airports is growing year on year. It affects millions of people, who breathe in toxic emissions and develop health conditions as a result, yet policy makers are brushing the problem under the carpet. Exponential growth of the sector and airports is incompatible with their climate goals, especially considering the slow uptake of clean technologies.

The sector led us to believe that they would bounce back better after the pandemic; they’ve certainly bounced back, but without action, the sector’s climate and health impact isn’t going to get any better.