Dear EarthTalk: Do airplanes contribute significantly to air pollution?
—Neil Gladstone, New York, NY
Airplanes do indeed create a great amount of air pollution. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a non-profit environmental group, “airport air pollution is similar in scope to that generated by local power plants, incinerators, and refineries, yet is exempt from rules other industrial polluters must follow.” Major airports, says NRDC, rank among the top 10 industrial air polluters in cities such as Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago. The hundreds of thousands of airplanes taking off, landing, taxiing and idling each day across the country emit contaminants into the air and ground which have been linked to a wide range of human health problems, including asthma and cancer.
Beyond local environmental effects, air travel is contributing significantly to global warming. A 1999 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that aircraft are responsible for 3.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide; this could increase to 10 percent by 2050 as the popularity of air travel rises. Meanwhile, contrails—those vapor condensation trails you see overhead that are formed when airplanes fly at high altitudes through extremely cold air—could be contributing to global warming as they turn into high thin cirrus clouds and trap heat from incoming sunlight within the atmosphere.
A recent agreement to cut 37 daily peak-hour arrivals at America’s busiest airport, Chicago’s O”Hare, should help to not only ease congestion and reduce delays but also to improve local air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, because of the increasing popularity of air travel, 60 of the 100 largest U.S. airports are proposing building more runways, thus expanding rather than reducing activity.
Because airplanes are considered part of interstate commerce, they are not subject to local and state pollution laws. Furthermore, the Federal Aviation Administration has the potentially conflicting responsibilities of monitoring pollution while promoting air travel.
In lieu of government regulation to curb airplane emissions, though, economics sometimes prevail. In the wake of 9/11, consumers have been skittish about air travel, while fuel prices have risen to unprecedented levels. Ailing airlines are left with no choice but to scale back on flights as well as on engine idling, in turn benefiting the environment. Analysts estimate that Delta Air Lines” voluntary reduction of engine idling, for instance, has cut ground-level emissions from its planes by as much as 40 percent.
Meanwhile, NRDC promotes taxes on jet fuel as a way to encourage airlines to increase their efficiency, and encourages consumers to opt for alternative modes of transportation, such as high-speed rail when available, especially for shorter distances. “Consumers can also help,” says the group, “by demanding that airports be subject to the same rigorous standards and reporting requirements as their industrial neighbors.”