HIGH ON BOSTON Mayor Michelle Wu’s agenda is a municipal-level Green New Deal. Indeed, the new mayor recently declared that she is “looking to make Boston the greenest city.” The Boston Green New Deal document, released in 2020 by then-Councilor Wu, makes clear that this undertaking is not simply about dramatically cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions; it is also about creating a city centered on social and ecological justice.
What’s missing from the document and the ensuing discussions is Boston’s single biggest emissions source: flights from Logan Airport. Were Logan’s harmful impacts on surrounding communities included, any Green New Deal true to its name would reach an inescapable conclusion: Logan Airport must be radically downsized.
The Wu administration’s plans for green transformation build on fertile soil. An ordinance Mayor Kim Janey signed in October 2021, for example, requires all large buildings to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The regulation’s underlying logic is that 70 percent of Boston’s emissions (estimated at 6.2 million metric tons in 2019) come from buildings. And half of those are from commercial structures of over 20,000 square feet or residences with 15 units or more.
While the regulation is undoubtedly valuable, its justification is informed by a deficient estimate of Boston’s total emissions. Most notably, as an appendix to the City of Boston’s “Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory” states, it “does not include emissions from airplane travel.”
As for Massport, the state authority which owns and operates the airport, it does offer an estimate of aircraft-related emissions: almost 500,000 tons in 2019. But Massport limits its analysis to aircraft engine start-ups, taxiing, and take-offs and landings.
A far better measure concerns the jet fuel Logan consumes. In 2019, that figure was a little more than 521 million gallons. This translates into about five million tons of emissions—more than those from all of Boston’s buildings. (It is also roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of Uganda, a country of about 50 million people.) Were these added to the emissions City Hall now counts, it would constitute more than 40 percent of the total.
According to a recent study, every 4,434 tons of emitted CO2 leads to one premature death due to rising temperatures. Logan’s 2019 consumption of jet fuel thus translates into 1,128 excess fatalities.
Beyond altering the climate, the flights are a major source of harmful air pollutants. Their effects are most felt in communities which neighbor Logan. Research demonstrates that the pollutants lead to markedly greater risk of asthma among children and of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among adults who have lived nearby for three or more years. They also result in significantly increased exposure to gaseous pollutants and particulate matter associated with hypertension, cardiovascular disorders, and learning disabilities.
East Boston, with its large immigrant, working-class population, is the community most directly impacted. It is also the Boston neighborhood with “the most population, buildings, and land area at risk from coastal flooding,” says a city report. In decades past, Massport devoured many streets and residences and even its most beloved green space, Wood Island Park, to expand the airport. This also involved destruction of wetlands. Airport expansion thus eliminated important natural defenses to flooding, while helping fuel climate-change-induced sea-level rise that increasingly threatens East Boston and nearby coastal areas.
If Boston is going to achieve drastic cuts in carbon emissions and bring about an environmentally just city, addressing Logan Airport must be central to the undertaking. In a rapidly warming world, aviation industry promises of electric airplanes or biofuels are dangerous diversions from the hard decisions that far-reaching decarbonization and climate justice require.
Around the world, there is growing recognition of this reality. From Oakland to Barcelona, there are campaigns opposing airport expansion. In 2020, authorities blocked a planned enlargement of Bristol Airport in the United Kingdom. And in 2021, the French government rejected the expansion of Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris and outlawed many short-haul flights within France.
By working with state and local government allies across Massachusetts, the Wu administration can bring pressure to bear upon Massport to begin shrinking Logan’s size and the number of departing flights. By collaborating with neighboring communities, it can also help make the areas around the airport more resilient and healthy. And by working with labor unions, it can help ensure well-paying, green jobs for those displaced by Logan’s downsizing and bring about infrastructure for low-carbon forms of transport.
Such tasks are essential to a Boston Green New Deal worth fighting for.
Joseph Nevins is a professor of geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Along with Eleni Macrakis and Suren Moodliar, he is also a coauthor of A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.