Dear Luton Airport,
Congratulations on the recent rebrand of your operating company from London Luton Airport Limited to Luton Rising. I like the way this name ties the airport’s ownership more closely to the town and its aspirations. I’m proud that Luton Council owns the airport, and that the wealth that it creates is shared, and isn’t reserved for external shareholders.
I wish more airports and amenities were community-owned in this way. We’d have a more equal and inclusive economy if everyone had a meaningful stake in local infrastructure, and so I fully support an airport managed for social impact.
In managing the airport for good however, we should be very clear about one thing: it cannot expand. Not while more planes means more greenhouse gases, which will be true for the foreseeable future. In your sustainability documents, you consistently stress the point that you are reducing the emissions that you directly control, and therefore you exclude the flights themselves – that’s down to the airlines. That’s arguable until you start to expand capacity. At that point, Luton is directly responsible for the increase in global emissions.
The purpose of airports is to facilitate the take off and landing of planes. Let’s not pretend that the flights themselves have nothing to do with us, whatever the official carbon accounting rules or international agreements might say. If we put the fuel into the plane in Luton, those are emissions from Luton Airport. Were you to count them, you would find that the airport’s impact on the planet is greater than some entire nations – especially the poorest and most low-lying nations, which face the highest risk from climate disaster.
This is an important point. The planes taking off and landing at Luton Airport release their greenhouse gases into a global atmosphere, which means we don’t necessarily see the harm that they cause. It happens elsewhere.
For example, in Madagascar, where I spent my childhood. The south of Madagascar is currently experiencing a famine. It is the only famine in the world caused by climate change rather than conflict, and yet carbon footprints in the region are minuscule. It is the carbon emissions of richer countries that are causing hunger and starvation in the south of Madagascar.
The Malagasy environment minister, Baomiavotse Vahinala Raharinirina, explicitly makes a connection between her country and aviation: “We should forbid the low-cost flights where you sometimes have two people go from Paris to Madrid or from Edinburgh to Vienna. It’s a high-cost flight for people in my country.”
Luton Airport specialises in exactly these kinds of flights. The economic benefits of the airport come home to Luton, but the damage falls hardest on others. I want to see Luton Rising, but not at the expense of others. To expand carbon emissions now would be a Luton rising by stepping on the backs of the world’s poorest. And so the airport cannot ethically expand passenger numbers and flights.
This is where Luton’s unique council ownership is a strength. Our airport is not beholden to distant shareholders. We can choose to run it differently. We can choose not to expand until it can be done in a genuinely zero carbon fashion. We can be the airport that puts its money where its mouth is on sustainability and the public good, and that says ‘thank you, that’s enough’.
That would be an airport we could truly be proud of as a town.
PS – As a local resident I know how much Luton needs the money from the airport, so please do get in touch if I can help to support the diversification of Luton Rising beyond the dependence on aviation. I can imagine community owned solar, biogas, a bus company, urban farming and starter homes – for example – as part of your portfolio.