New Site Tracks Emissions From the World’s Largest Airports

For the longest time, discussion over greener aviation has tended to revolve around binaries.

Airliners at gates and Control Tower at LAX
Michael H / Getty Images

Earlier this year, Marvin Rees, the mayor of Bristol, England, attended a launch event for a net-zero commitment from the local airport. Here was Rees’ statement at the time: 

“I welcome Bristol Airport’s ambition to drive carbon neutrality and environmental sustainability into the heart of its future, and to show leadership on how the sector can green its impact and deliver on testing carbon goals. In an increasingly interconnected world we must harness technology and innovation to reach our goal of carbon neutrality. Bristol’s aerospace sector is well placed to continue to lead on solutions to this challenge.”

While one might think an attempt to help decarbonize aviation would be welcomed by climate campaigners, this particular initiative was not. And the reason it was less than universally praised is relatively simple: The net-zero commitment didn’t actually include planes, or even the cars traveling to and from the airport either. Instead, it was focused on reaching net-zero for the buildings, the airport’s own vehicle fleet, and the airfield itself. 

While I’ve defended certain types of net-zero commitments in the past—and certainly argued that these initiatives are not all created equal—it’s undeniable that the concept is rife with the potential for abuse, especially in the form of highly emissions-intensive industry sectors claiming neutrality or ‘zero’ through being extremely selective about which emissions they are actually willing to take responsibility for. 

In this case, the airport’s actual emissions related to flights look something like this: 

Airport Tracker

Airport Tracker

This display comes from Airport Tracker—a new interactive website that displays flight-related emissions data from airports around the world. It’s a collaboration between International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT)ODI, and Transport and Environment (T&E), and covers the 1,300 largest airports in the world, capturing data for some 99% of global airline passenger traffic.

It’s potentially an extremely powerful tool, and the creators are explicit about its purpose. This, from the website’s “About” section: 

Our hope is that by providing this data we can provide policymakers and campaigners with robust estimates of the climate impact of existing and proposed airport capacity on a case-by-case basis and better understand how the aviation industry can fit in our planning for a climate-safe world.

This is an encouraging sign. For the longest time, discussion over greener aviation has tended to revolve around binaries—either we stop flying altogether, or we pursue greener technologies like electrification or sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). Yet as ICCT’s Dan Rutherford shared with Treehugger in a recent interview, any realistic path to lowering aviation emissions must involve both significant demand-side reduction and innovation toward efficiency and renewables. 

Meanwhile, the other reason why Mayor Rees’ presence at Bristol Airport’s net-zero event was so derided by campaigners was the simple fact that he has long been a supporter of expanding the airport and increasing capacity. That’s not the case for all local political leaders. In fact, Dan Norris—the leader of the metro area that encompasses Bristol Airport—has just come out explicitly in opposition to the plan. 

This is a move that is not without potential political risks. But as the population becomes increasingly concerned about the climate crisis, and as we emerge from the pandemic with new tools and experiences for virtualizing a lot of unnecessary travel, there is renewed opportunity for brave and principled stances that do not accept unchecked aviation growth as inevitable. Sites like Airport Tracker, which make the astounding impact of aviation a lot more visible and easy to understand, could play a crucial role in supporting such stances, and creating a permission structure for politicians to think beyond token efforts to make airports just a little tiny bit less harmful.