climate change transport

What is the climate impact of Luton Airport?

As I’ve been documenting, Luton Airport is planning to double in size, in defiance of the reality of climate breakdown. I’ve been surprised at how difficult it is to pin down what the full environmental effect of the expansion would be, for a number of reasons.

The main problem is that, following government advice, the airport doesn’t count the actual flying in its calculations. Obviously flying is the point of airports, but in the magic of the ‘sustainable growth plan’, they don’t. There is no legal requirement for airports to measure their CO2 emissions.

If you look at the airport’s extensive environmental impact assessment, you’ll find a whole chapter on making sure the airport is resilient to future climate change. A lot of work has gone into protecting Luton Airport from the damage it is helping to cause. It’s contribution to the problem is masked by the official government decision to exclude the emissions from the planes themselves. The airport starts counting once they touch the ground. Otherwise, it’s somebody else’s problem.

The result is that we have lots of detail about how Luton council can make its airport buildings more efficient, improve public transport access, and streamline plane taxi-ing routes. You can see this fiddling around the edges on the airport’s own website. It has a page called ‘reducing our carbon footprint‘, and – feel free to go and check this for yourself – it’s main boast is that they use LED light bulbs.

So if we want to know what kind of damage expanding Luton Airport will do to the climate, they’re not going to do the maths for us. I’m going to have a go myself, and I’ll show my work because this is not my strong point. I have also invited the airport to correct me, should they choose to do so.

One way to measure the flight emissions that Luton Airport directly enables is to calculate them from fuel use. If a plane is fuelled up in Luton, those emissions are very directly caused by Luton Airport, whatever the regulations and guidance say. Fortunately, we have these figures because they’re included in traffic surveys. Here’s the relevant passage from the expansion proposal:

“The average daily fuel demand for the existing airport is 1,365m3 to meet the 18mppa capacity, which equates to a daily average (not allowing for peak periods) of approximately 76 truck movements (in and out) per day. This increases to a daily average of 136 truck movements to meet the 32mppa capacity if all the fuel were to be delivered by road.”

  • That’s 1,365 cubic metres of fuel a day at present, delivered in 38 incoming trucks. Once passenger numbers are doubled, they estimate 136 truck movements and therefore 2,442 m3 of fuel.
  • Jet fuel is considered in weight. Using this methodology, there are 0.8 tonnes in a m3 of jet fuel. That gives us 1,953 tonnes of fuel a day being trucked into an expanded airport.
  • Each kg of jet fuel produces 3.1 kg of CO2 (that’s unintuitive chemistry for you), so that’s 6,056 tonnes of CO2 a day.
  • Over a year, we get 2,210,498 tonnes of CO2.

That’s just the fuel loaded into the planes leaving Luton Airport, not the ones coming in, and of course an expanded airport creates those flights too to some extent. I’m only calculating CO2 emissions, and not the broader greenhouse gas impact of aviation – so consider this very generous to Luton Airport.

To that we also need to add the emissions from running the airport buildings and operations, and from all the passengers and freight traveling to and from the airport – the bit that Luton Airport considers its responsibility. I haven’t added this either, so this is an underestimate. Please feel free to elaborate, improve, or correct my work here.

What we have in that figure of 2.2 million tonnes a year is a conservative estimate of the direct emissions from Luton Airport that it would be ignoring if it doubled in size. 2.2 million tonnes is the bit we’re pretending doesn’t matter.

To put that in some kind of global context for you, the entire country of Rwanda produces half of that. There are over 50 countries with a smaller carbon footprint than Luton Airport would have – on its own – if it expands as planned. That’s why, for all the local benefits, airport expansion is a global issue.


  1. How convenient to not have to take airplane emissions into account!

    It might be helpful to think about the emissions due to expansion. Of the 2.2 million total, about 1.2 are current emissions and about 1million are due to an expansion. Am I right, it’s only a very very rough estimate!!

    1. Yes, that’s about it. I’ve asked the airport if they have more specific figures, but they’ve referred me to the owner. What the chances the owner refers me back to the operator?

  2. Hi Jeremy,

    This is a difficult situation, and there are questions that need to be answered before dropping the whole blame on Luton.

    So, playing Devils Advocate, my questions are;

    1/ Is the whole expansion based on brand new flights, or are operators moving from other airports if so this will be basically a neutral change, maybe a reduction if the fuel depot is closer to Luton than the previous Airport (OK, might also be higher)

    2/ If you were to take the whole aviation industry as a whole, how would you assign responsibility for the emission? Probably by company, so Easyjet gets a bit, as would BA, Virgin, Luton, Heathrow, Belfast International etc etc. Since it would be poor mathematics to count the same thing twice it is easy to see why Luton wouldn’t want to take responsibility for other companies emissions.

    So what this says to me is that we need a better way of labelling the emissions etc, something that isn’t confusing, but don’t ask me, I can’t think of anything.

    The second thing this all says to me is that if Luton thinks this is worth doing then it is because they see a demand for it. That demand comes from us, the passengers, if the number of flights need to increase, then it is because more people are flying. There is no point moaning about this if the demand is increasing, perhaps the focus should be changed to the reasons that more people are travelling and try to reduce the demand.

    Would this make sense to anyone apart from me 🙂


    1. Absolutely, it is complicated and my intention is not to blame anyone. As I say in the post, Luton Airport is just following the government’s guidance. But in answer to your questions:

      Yes, this is increased capacity, not just flights being moved around. There are no shrinking airports in the region that I’m aware of, and all of them are expanding.

      Yes, the airlines should take responsibility for their emissions, but that doesn’t get the airports off the hook. If airports didn’t expand, the aviation sector couldn’t expand either. Incidentally, if you blame the airlines, they in turn blame the oil companies for not developing alternatives.

      On demand, it’s well know that supply creates demand as much as the other way round, especially with infrastructure. Adding an extra lane to a motorway incentivises driving and creates more traffic. I’m not aware of any great clamour from people who wish they could fly somewhere and can’t because the airport won’t lay on more flights. I am aware of great big billboards announcing new destinations and promoting weekend breaks. New flights will be provided and then marketed.

      There are many reasons why Luton Airport wants to expand, the big ones being jobs and money for the council – Luton is the only airport entirely owned by a council. Those are big benefits, for sure. The question is whether it is right or just to claim those benefits in a time of climate breakdown.

      1. Hi Jeremy,

        I wasn’t aware that all of the new flights and routes had been announced, I must have missed that.

        I don’t think that I agree that ‘it’s well known that supply creates demand’, as far as I know, demand is created by advertising and by peoples desire for the product/service. At the end of the day if the demand is there the capacity will follow, whether it is at Luton or somewhere else. I know the situation at Luton is odd due to the ownership status of the Airport, but growth at airports is going to be a given until people stop travelling. As far as I’m concerned demand isn’t going to go down anytime soon, it will keep going up. Even the most adamant environmentalists I know still manage to go for a foreign holiday once every year or two and maybe a cheeky weekend trip every now and again.

        The demand for flights is like the demand for any product, short of a change in technology (like LED bulbs, electric cars etc) things are just going to increase. This is the main cause of climate change, people wanting more.

        Good Luck


        1. There has been no announcement of new routes to serve the expansion, though consultants were speaking with enthusiasm about the possibilities. Given that it has been expanding for several years already, Luton Airport regularly press releases new routes and new airlines. Sarajevo, Moscow and St Petersburg were all added in the last few weeks.

          There is nothing inevitable about airport growth. Adding a flight to Sarajevo will mean more people flying there, who would not have thought to do so until the route opened. People in Bosnia will consider visiting or moving to Luton who would not otherwise have done so. The route is created, advertised, and the demand is fostered to serve it.

          Growth is not inevitable either, as Sweden demonstrates – domestic air travel is falling and rail journeys are increasing as people choose not to fly.

          Everyone has a choice about whether they fly or not. I’ve personally taken one flight for work since I started this blog 12 years ago.

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