The current epidemic of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has produced a worldwide health care burden, approaching that imposed by transmittable infectious diseases. COPD is a multidimensional disease, with varied intermediate and clinical phenotypes. This Review discusses the pathogenesis of COPD, with particular focus on emphysema, based on the concept that pulmonary injury involves stages of initiation (by exposure to cigarette smoke, pollutants, and infectious agents), progression, and consolidation. Tissue damage entails complex interactions among oxidative stress, inflammation, extracellular matrix proteolysis, and apoptotic and autophagic cell death. Lung damage by cigarette smoke ultimately leads to self-propagating processes, resulting in macromolecular and structural alterations - features similar to those seen in aging.