Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a clinical syndrome presenting as progressive airflow limitation that is poorly reversible as a result of bronchitis and emphysema. The prevalence of COPD is alarming and even more so its current and projected impact on morbidity and mortality. To date, there are no effective treatments for emphysema, nor are there efficient clinical management strategies. Existing and prospective therapies, although promising, have yet to demonstrate their efficacy to slow, halt or reverse the disease. Novel approaches using gene therapy and stem cell technologies may offer new opportunities. However, this will remain almost entirely dependent on a more thorough understanding of the pathogenesis of COPD. This review is not aimed at highlighting the vast effort of studying COPD, but rather describing the state of the field in an abstract fashion to expose the focus of research efforts to date, which has primarily been limited to predisposing factors and inflammation. We would like to draw attention to other elements of the disease, such as the alveolar remodelling that characterises emphysema. Although the main cause may prove to be elusive, carefully designed clinical treatment and management may deliver the required therapeutic outcome.