Issue Briefing: Impacts of Airplane Pollution on Climate Change and Health

Viewed from the ground, airplanes appear clean and efficient. They fly at fantastic speeds with no apparent effort, leaving behind only thin streams of puffy white clouds.

In reality, airplanes accomplish the miraculous feat of hurling hundreds of thousands of pounds of people, baggage, and aluminum thousands of miles at high speeds by consuming huge amounts of fossil fuels. In the process, airlines dump massive amounts of dangerous pollutants over our homes and into our atmosphere every day. This great but largely invisible harm will continue to grow at an accelerating rate in the years to come.

Airplanes have three major problems: they are inefficient, they are big, and they run on toxic fuels. A fully laden A380, according to its’ engine maker Rolls Royce, uses as much energy as 3,500 family cars, equivalent to six cars for each passenger. 1 Long haul flights produce on average twice as much emissions per mile traveled per passenger than cars and short haul flights produce three times as much.  

Unlike cars, however, people do not use airplanes for a few minutes each day to travel just around the corner for groceries or into the office. People fly hundreds or thousands of miles on each flight and airplanes spend many hours each day aloft. A single round trip flight from New York to Europe or San Francisco produces two to three tons of carbon dioxide per person. 2 To put this in perspective, the average American generates 19 tons of carbon dioxide and the average European produces ten over an entire year. A few flights, in other words, can completely overwhelm any attempts to reduce your personal contribution to global warming.

Airplanes achieve such extraordinary levels of energy consumption and carbon emissions by burning large quantities of toxic jet fuel. This fuel produces, in addition to carbon dioxide, NOx, sulphates, and particulate matter, all of which amplify the impact of aviation on global warming. Airplanes emit all of these pollutants directly into the atmosphere, compounding the pollutants’ warming impact. Even those innocuous-looking contrails trap heat on the Earth’s surface. The combined effect of all of these pollutants multiplies the global warming impact of aviation, making aviation currently responsible for an estimated 5% of global climate pollution.

The burning of incredible quantities of toxic fuel has impacts that extend beyond the climate. As soon as airplanes leave the gate, they begin to produce phenomenal amounts of nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and cancer-causing toxics such as benzene and formaldehyde. 3 This pollution travels miles downwind, contributing to asthma, lung and heart disease, and a large number of cancers.

The emissions from taxiing and take-off of aircraft help make airports some of the largest sources of these pollutants and major public health hazards. For example, Los Angeles Airport is the largest source of NOx, a key cause of the region’s copious smog, in California and the third largest source of carbon monoxide. 4 Logan Airport in Boston, MA produces twice as much benzene as the next largest source in Massachusetts. 5 Scientists have found that even small increases in taxi time at airports in Southern California contribute to significant increases in asthma, respiratory ailments, and heart disease in surrounding communities. Scientists also believe that particulate matter emissions from airplanes, along with ships and trains, contribute to 1,800 early deaths per year in the United Kingdom alone. 7 These health impacts also translate into large economic costs for society.

All of these climate, health, and economic impacts will escalate enormously in the future as more and more people around the world fly. Analysts expect the global aviation industry to grow by 5% per year for the next two decades. 8 At this rate, the size of the industry will double in 15 years and triple in 23.  Scientists expect aviation carbon dioxide emissions to double by 2030, bringing with them more toxic pollution. 9 Airplanes have become more efficient and less polluting over time. But these small gains have and will continue to be overwhelmed by the gross inefficiency of the activity and the rapid growth of the industry.

Despite their shiny chrome exterior, an airplane, just like a power plant or an oil refinery, is dirty. Worse still, it is an industry on the move, growing in size and pollution in leaps and bounds. The governments of the world have the opportunity to dramatically cut airplane pollution, and help the climate. But until United Airlines and other airlines clean up their operations and support common sense, low-cost emissions reduction policies, aviation pollution will just keep growing, hurting local communities and the global climate.

1 Economist. “Aircraft Emissions. The Sky’s the Limit.” June 8, 2006. 

2 Elizabeth Rosenthal. “Your Biggest Carbon Sin May Be Air Travel.” New York Times. January 26, 2013.

Center for Clean Air Policy and Northeastern States for Coordinated Air Use Management. “Controlling Airport-Related Air Pollution.” June 2003.

4 Wolfram Schlenker and W. Redd Walter. “Airports, Air Pollution, and Conptemporaneous Health.” National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper 17684. 2011.

5 Center for Clean Air Policy and Northeastern States for Coordinated Air Use Management. “Controlling Airport-Related Air Pollution.” June 2003.

6 Wolfram Schlenker and W. Redd Walter. “Airports, Air Pollution, and Conptemporaneous Health.” National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper 17684. 2011.

7 Steve Yim and Steven Barrett. “Public health Impacts of Combustion Emissions in the United Kingdom.” Environmental Science and Technology. 2012. 46.8.

8 Boeing. “Current Market Outlook 2012-2031”. 2012.

9 Nicholas Lutsey, Prioritizing Climate Change Mitigation Alternatives: Comparing Transportation Technologies to Options in Other Sectors (UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, June 2008), 81; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2001: Working Group III: Mitigation, 2001, Artur Runge-Metzger, “Aviation and Emissions Trading: ICAO Council Briefing,” September 29, 2010, available at Percent change relative to a 2006 baseline.


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