The Environmental Injustice in Aviation Emissions

February 6, 2023 by Paige Kendrick

Picture depicting a series of airplanes, one behind the other, on a tarmac with grass on either side. An additional single aircraft, one tarmac over on the right, is also visible

The last few years, especially these last few months, have seen aviation emission regulation like never before. At home and abroad, the aviation industry appears to be making significant inroads relating to emissions from engines “typically used in commercial passenger and freight aircraft and in larger business jets.”[1] In January 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its final rulemaking on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and in November 2022, the EPA finalized regulations for particulate matter (PM). Unfortunately, these final rulemakings by the EPA do little more than create anti-backsliding measures; in short, they are technology-following and prevent regression regarding emissions. Both regulations “are not expected to, in and of themselves, result in further reductions in PM [or GHG emissions] from these engines,” and the agency does “not anticipate the standards to result in an improvement in air quality for those who live near airports where these aircraft operate.”[2]

The passing of these regulations, which we can expect little to no change from, also shed light on the environmental injustices caused by aviation. It is important to note that aviation and injustice have an interconnected and storied history. In wartime, these injustices can be seen in the unprecedented damage that aircraft can swiftly deliver, such as the fire-bombing of Dresden or the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. At the same time, aviation has long been a gateway for women and independence; after all, Rosie the Riveter was working on a B-26 bomber.[3] In more recent years, one of aviation’s most significant justice concerns is environmental justice (EJ), be that noise pollution or emissions that disproportionately impact minority communities.

Noise pollution from aviation has been a hot topic, especially since the emergence of supersonic jets and their tendency to create sonic booms. Aviation’s noise issues were so significant that they are addressed in the Clean Air Act (CAA) § 231(a)(2)(B)(ii), which states that the EPA “Administrator shall not change the aircraft engine emission standards if such change would significantly increase noise and adversely affect safety.”[4] This provision can be seen as an effort to cap the noise emissions from civil airplanes starting in 1970. Justice for aviation noise pollution was seen a few years later when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey banned the Concorde aircraft, the first supersonic civilian jet, in 1976 “from landing at JFK Airport over noise issues.”[5] Although the Southern District of New York dissolved and lifted the ban in 1977,[6] the idea of protecting local communities that disproportionally face the brunt of aviation pollution remained.

Today, noise is still a concern, but particulate matter and GHGs are now the main topics of conversation around aviation pollution. This comes as little surprise considering “aviation produced 2.4 percent of total CO2 emissions in 2018” worldwide.[7] Nationally, the “EPA reports that commercial airplanes and large business jets contribute 10 percent of U.S. transportation emissions, and account for 3 percent of the nation’s total” GHG emissions.[8] Aviation is also an international sector that continues to grow: before the COVID-19 pandemic, global aviation emissions were forecasted to triple by 2050 compared with 2015 levels.[9] This means that if new technologies are not introduced, or new rules are not promulgated to instigate change, the harms of these aviation-induced emissions in EJ communities will only become more significant.

The same thing that gives aviation its distinctive flare is the thing that makes its emissions more significant: flight. “Aircraft are unique in that they emit gases directly into the higher levels of the atmosphere. Research suggests that gases can have different effects when emitted at this altitude relative to emission at ground level.”[10] Whereas growth rates of CO2 in the atmosphere are a global problem in terms of climate change, it and other gases also play a role on the ground. One study that was published in 2015 by researchers at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley found that “daily airplane taxi time significantly impacts the health of local residents, largely driven by increased levels of carbon monoxide (CO) exposure.”[11]

Beyond carbon emissions, other pollutants like PM have a more direct impact on the location in which they are directly emitted. A 2021 review concluded that “proximity to running jet engines or to the airport as such for residential areas is associated with increased exposure and with increased risk of disease, increased hospital admissions and self-reported lung symptoms.”[12] This review looked at exposure to those in both airport occupational settings as well as a residential setting for those who lived in airport-adjacent communities.[13] Other studies, which looked at the airports in California, have suggested that living within a six-mile radius of an airport may cause higher rates of asthma and heart conditions.[14]

Around the country, it is not uncommon to find major airports at the edge of minority communities. My hometown of St. Louis is a perfect example of this, as Lambert St. Louis International Airport’s various expansions have disrupted and displaced several minority communities.[15] What makes North St. Louis, where the airport is more specifically located, unique in terms of EJ is that Lambert is also one of many sites across St. Louis where radioactive uranium waste was stored from the production of nuclear weapons during World War II (WWII).[16] In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry assessed “the St. Louis Airport site to be an indeterminate public health hazard,” partly due to the radon and thorium present in the air and in the soil off-site.[17] Although the St. Louis Airport Site has been given a Superfund designation, made famous in the 2017 HBO documentary Atomic Homefront,[18] the communities that continue to face the effects of WWII atomic weaponry are not made any better by the daily onslaught of gases, fumes, and PM from aviation that continues to be regulated at the lowest degree possible while still fulfilling Clean Air Act requirements.

In light of the disproportionate impact of aviation emissions on airport-adjacent EJ communities and the knowledge that new EPA regulations are not expected to result in decreases in emissions, the question becomes: when will the aviation industry  make changes to engine emissions to diminish the harm to these areas? Because wherever airplanes go, emissions are sure to follow.

[1] Proposed Rule for Control of Air Pollution From Aircraft Engines; Emission Standards and Test Procedures, EPA, (last visited Jan. 23, 2023).

[2] Control of Air Pollution From Aircraft Engines: Emission Standards and Test Procedures, 87 Fed. Reg. 72312, 72314 (Nov. 23, 2022) (to be codified at 40 C.F.R. pts. 9, 87, 1030, 1031)

[3] Rosie the Riveter, Lockheed Martin,,B%2D26%20bomber%20production%20facility (last visited Jan. 23, 2023).

[4] 42 U.S.C. § 7571(a)(2)(B)(ii).

[5] Gaurav Joshi, Which Countries Banned Concorde From Supersonic Flight?, Simple Flying (Oct. 13, 2021)

[6] See British Airways Bd. v. Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, 564 F.2d 1002, 1012–1013.

[7]  Jeff Overton, The Growth in Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Commercial Aviation, Environmental and Energy Study Institute, 1 (revised June 9, 2022),

[8] Id.

[9] Reducing Emissions from Aviation, European Commission, (last visited Jan. 12, 2023).

[10] Information on the Environmental Impact of Aviation, UK Civil Aviation Authority,,to%20emission%20at%20ground%20level (last visited Jan. 23, 2023).

[11] See Wolfram Schlenker & W. Reed Walker, Airports, Air Pollution, and Contemporaneous Health, 83(2) The Review of Econ. Stud. 768, abstract (April 2016),

[12] Katja M. Bendtsen et al., A Review of Health Effects Associated with Exposure to Jet Engine Emissions in and Around Airports, 20 Env’t Health, (last modified Feb. 24, 2021).

[13] Id.

[14] See Schlenker, Airports, Air Pollution, and Contemporaneous Health, abstract.

[15] Amber Victoria Woodburn, Pushback in the Jet Age: Investigating Neighborhood Change, Environmental Justice, and Planning Process in Airport-Adjacent Communities, 3 (2016) (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania) (Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations, 2101),

[16] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Preliminary Public Health Assessment St. Louis Airport, CDC, (last reviewed Jan 12, 2010).

[17] Id.

[18] Atomic Homefront (HBO 2017),