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.