activism climate change

But what about the planes?

Last week I took part in a BBC news item about Luton Airport expansion. The report looked at the airport’s plans for ‘green controlled growth‘, and whether expanding an airport could ever be sustainable. I said what I always say in these sorts of conversations: what about the planes?

Luton airport only deals with emissions that occur on the ground. As soon as the planes take off, nobody takes responsibility for the emissions. And of course this is the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Luton Airport produced 1.4 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019, of which 1.2 million was from the planes. Emissions from ground operations is only a fraction of the total impact, and this is regularly overlooked.

As if to prove the point, the report explained the airport’s green controlled growth scheme, leaving it to the small print on screen to specify that the legally binding greenhouse gas emissions limits were only for airport operations and not the flights. Later in the programme a local MP came on to talk up the airport. “Between 2016 and 2019” says Sarah Owen, “there was an increase of over 20% in passengers, yet carbon emissions reduced by 30%.” This refers, of course, to ground operations. But casual viewers wouldn’t know that.

The airport did reduce its emissions – it switched to LED lightbulbs and changed to a renewable energy provider. But we’re not counting the planes. The 20% increase in passengers numbers naturally meant a huge increase in climate change impact. If the airport expansion goes ahead as planned, there will be a further increase in emissions, regardless of whether or not the airport itself meets its target to be carbon neutral by 2026.

It will not be the choice of lightbulbs at Luton Airport that decides the fate of people on low-lying island, or in the paths of cyclones or droughts. It will be the planes.

If Luton Airport expands to its expected passenger numbers, it will be generating around 2.2 million tonnes of CO2 per year. That’s around the same as the fossil fuel emissions of Puerto Rico right now, and well over twice the emissions of Rwanda, Mali or Chad.

Luton Airport will single-handedly have a climate impact greater than entire nations, and it will still be congratulating itself for being net zero – because we don’t count the planes.


  1. Well put Jeremy! Its actually a form of greenwash when companies, business’s etc mislead like this

    1. Yes it is. Not that Luton Airport aren’t doing good things with the amount of emissions that they do directly control, but we can’t just all pretend that the rest of it is none of their business.

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