China’s Airport Binge is Bad Environmental News

22.10.2008   (

By Dave Demerjian

As China grows so does its aviation sector, and its insatiable need for airports.
The country will
by one estimate invest as much as $64 billion during the next 12 years expanding existing airports
building 97 more. That may not sound like much in a country of 1.3 billion people, but all those
airports will create a huge amount of pollution.

The building boom is fueled by skyrocketing passenger travel and cargo shipping.  
Diao Yonghai, Deputy Director of Aviation for the Civil Aviation Administration
of China, attributed the growth to rising international trade and tourism and
China’s per capita GDP. He called it an “unprecedented opportunity” to bolster
the country’s airport infrastructure.

But that growth poses a significant threat to the environment.


China’s commercial air traffic has grown an average of 17% a year since 1985,
reaching 387.5 million passengers last year.   Cargo’s seen similar growth, climbing 14.3% last year to more than
8.6 million tons.   The government anticipates air traffic to exceed 540 million
passengers by 2010 and air cargo to hit 12.8 million tons.

That kind of growth means a lot more jets coming and going, with a corresponding
rise in pollution.
According to Worldwatch Institute, aviation is responsible for 3.5% of the world’s air pollution.   Depending upon
who’s talking, that will grow to between 5% (
International Air Transport Association) and 14% (Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution) by 2050.

The figures can and will be debated, but there is no denying airports are anything
but clean. Not only are they the daily departure and arrival points for untold
numbers of aircraft,
notes the State Environmental Resource Center, but they produce plenty of pollution in and of themselves.

According to a report prepared by Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, 33 of the 50
largest airports in the US are located in areas that didn’t meet minimum air quality
standards in 2003.   And keep in mind that these numbers are from airports in a
country that’s making at least cursory efforts toward cleaning up its act. In
2007, for example, Dallas-Fort Worth Airport was
recognized by the EPA (.pdf) for its green efforts.

But in China the focus is on growth. China’s civil aviation administration claims
60 of the country’s airports are at or near capacity, and according to
a piece in Forbes, Beijing’s Capital Airport is so backed up it makes JFK look efficient.

That’s why China will invest some $20.5 billion and open two dozen airports by
2010 (though an aviation administration official concedes the tanking global economy
could slow things down).   China hasn’t signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, so there’s
nothing anyone can do to require that China minimize the environmental impact
of all those airports.

The airport binge is but one part of China’s explosive expansion, but it illustrates
the difficulty in finding a balance between sustainability and economic growth.
A more measured, eco-conscious approach makes sense from an environmental standpoint,
but China needs more of everything if it’s to sustain its move into the economic
big leagues. For now, that’s the country’s priority.