Every year, the planes taking off from JFK Airport in New York City and Frankfurt International in Germany emit as much carbon dioxide as three coal plants each. Los Angeles International, London Heathrow, and Dubai Airport, four coal plants each.
These are the findings of a new online tool called Airport Tracker, a joint project by the non-profits International Council on Clean Transportation, ODI, and Transport and Environment, intended to reveal “the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated from aircraft departing from airports around the world,” according to its website. The tool “contains information for the 1,300 largest global airports, covering 99 percent of global airline passenger traffic.”
The project is designed to address a gap in the way passenger airport emissions are reported, said Ipek Gencsu, a research fellow at ODI. “There is currently no publicly-available data on the emissions generated by flights departing from the world’s airports,” Genscu told Motherboard over email. “This makes it impossible to know the true climate impact of airports, how they contribute to the emissions of cities and countries, and therefore how governments should make decisions on their expansion—or even existence!”
This is a bit of a paradox. The world’s major airports are located in or near major cities, and major cities are also important political centers for advocating policies to combat climate change. Plus, air travel is increasingly recognized as a significant and difficult emissions problem to solve. Airplanes are a critical transportation mode in the modern, globalized world but aren’t good candidates for electrification or other low-emission propulsion options in the foreseeable future. And while the tool doesn’t take into account the emissions from airport operations like ground transportation or the physical buildings, those are negligible in comparison to what the airplanes themselves emit.
Yet, as Genscu told Motherboard, when cities, counties, or states try to measure their respective emissions impact, they “almost never” include emissions that airports create, a problem that is even more substantial in cities like New York, London, Beijing, and Moscow, which benefit from multiple major airports each and thousands of flights per day. “This is very odd—and hypocritical,” Genscu said, “as the positive economic impact of airports and the aviation industry on cities is often noted and celebrated.”
The most “shocking” finding to Genscu has been the global inequality around air travel. According to their data, just 20 airports were responsible for 27 percent of CO2 emissions from passenger transport. Only 100 of the 1,300 airports created two-thirds of air passenger CO2. And 86 of those 100 airports are in Asia-Pacific, North America, and Europe. And while one quarter of Earth’s human population lives in Africa and Latin America, those regions have none of the planet’s 20 most polluting airports. While countries in Europe, North America, and parts of Asia are making strides in reducing emissions, air travel has been a glaring exception.
While the online tool is a novel approach to revealing the toll air travel has taken on our communities and the planet, Genscu has no unique advice for what to do about it. Other than governments taking the issue seriously to limit airport expansions or even restrict capacity, she says reducing trips and replacing air with rail travel—easier in some countries than others—are the best thing to do for individuals who feel they are responsible for more than their “fair share” of climate impact.
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