London is most exposed city in world to air pollution from aviation, study finds

<span>London is the city in the world worst-affected by air pollution from aviation. Heathrow (pictured) is the second-most polluting individual airport, after Dubai. </span><span>Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA</span>
London is the city in the world worst-affected by air pollution from aviation. Heathrow (pictured) is the second-most polluting individual airport, after Dubai. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

The planes taking off and landing at London’s six airports expose the city’s inhabitants to the equivalent of 3.23m cars’ worth of harmful nitrogen oxides and particulate matter emissions every year. In Tokyo and Dubai, residents are exposed to 2.78m cars’ worth of emissions from air traffic.

These three cities are the world’s worst affected by air pollution from aviation, according to new research tracking the air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions of cargo and passenger flights from airports around the world.

It found the largest 20 airports, taken together, produced as much carbon emissions as 58 coal-fired power stations.

“Pollution around airports is growing year on year,” said Jo Dardenne, the aviation director at Transport & Environment, the thinktank which helped produce the research. “It affects millions of people, who breathe in toxic emissions and develop health conditions as a result, yet policymakers 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.”

The 2024 Airport Tracker, produced by the global affairs thinktank ODI in partnership with T&E, updates research first published in 2021. For the first time it includes the carbon impacts of air freight as well as passenger flights, covering the emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from 1,300 airports.

The world’s most polluting airport overall, it found, was Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. It accounted for 20.1m tonnes of CO2 emissions in a single year, roughly equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of five coal power plants, as well as 7,531 tonnes of NOx and 71 tonnes of PM2.5.

Heathrow airport in London was the second-worst for climate impact, spewing out 19.1m tonnes of CO2 a year, and for its NOx emissions, at 5,844 tonnes, although its 37 tonnes of annual PM2.5 pollution put it down that list in 16th place.

From there the picture is more complicated, with airports’ climate impacts and emissions of other harmful pollutants not clearly linked.

Critics of air travel have said there were insufficient safeguards around the kinds of pollution caused by airports. “Aircraft noise levels are continuously exceeded, and we completely lack EU standards on ultrafine particles, which are a major health hazard,” said Magdalena Heuwieser, of the activist network Stay Grounded.

“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.”

Sam Pickard, a 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.”

The Guardian has contacted the International Air Transport Association for comment.