Edinburgh airport funding children to plant 500 trees is vastly overshadowed by its expansion and huge carbon emissions
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 1 April 2010 12.06 BST
So that's all right then. After almost tripling the number of passengers using its runway over the past 15 years, one of Britain's fastest growing airports has given itself a green makeover. Edinburgh airport is, according to a story on the BBC website last week, to shell out so school children can plant 500 trees in a wood in Perthshire. "Airport in global warming project" is the priceless headline.
"It's a great example of how we can all play a part, however small, in safeguarding the natural environment," said the airport's commercial director Neil Anderson. "However small" is, I think, the operative phrase here.
But Anderson has more. The airport's new £40m departure lounge, set for completion next year, will have "energy efficient lights" (are there any other sort these days?), while "every effort will be made to reduce energy and water use, minimise waste and promote recycling".
Hmm. That is "every effort" consistent with ensuring the departure lounge can up its throughput of passengers from the current 9 million to 14 million by 2013. And that is a down payment on a strategy to have 26 million passengers by 2030, envisioned in the airport master plan.
Edinburgh is following the trick of Manchester International a couple of years ago, using a series of perfectly sensible energy-saving initiatives on the ground to provide a bit of cover for the huge blasts of carbon dioxide and other pollution that its "up, up and away" expansion activities will cause aloft.
Anything, it seems, to avoid discussing the elephants on their runways.
The results can be comic. The energy consultant Entec produced a report for the airport last year on its "carbon footprint". It promised to look at both its direct and indirect emissions. "In choosing which emissions to include," the report says, the airport company EDI "sought to be as comprehensive as possible, including those sources that would be expected to be associated with an airport and activities in EDI's supply chain."
You might imagine that such a comprehensive approach would include the emissions from the flights delivering and removing the airport's "supply chain" of passengers. But it turns out that aircraft emissions only count while they are on the company's tarmac and during the first thousand metres of takeoff and landing. As Forum for the Future said of Manchester airport's green auditing "this jars somewhat". Even so, the planned expansion means that the airport's carbon footprint is set to soar.
A spokesman for the airport said that people are going to fly anyway, so "as responsible corporate citizens, we have a duty to mitigate what we can". Maybe. But even fans of the airline industry argue that we should be taking more short journeys by train. And Edinburgh currently specialises in short flights we could just as easily do by train.
I checked its destination board for flights one day this week. Allowing for a bit of code-sharing, I found 138 flights of which 77, more than half, were to destinations on the British mainland with railway stations.
OK, Edinburgh to Exeter is a long haul on the train. About seven hours. But most of those internal flights are going to London and Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
In term of emissions per kilometre travelled, these short flights are especially heavy polluters. Airports that depend on them are environmental pariahs.
I admit I have flown from Edinburgh to London, though I usually catch the train. The most irritating thing is that the railway line out of Edinburgh goes right past the perimeter fence, but there is no station. So air passengers mostly get to the airport by car.
The last airport master plan, revised in 2006, talked grandly about its "commitment to public transport", and boasts that a fifth of its passengers arrive on the bus. A fifth!
But the long-touted Edinburgh airport rail link to get trains from the perimeter fence to the terminal is going nowhere. "Project status: suspended" as its website puts it.
The necessary parliamentary bill received royal assent in April 2007. But the website's last headline was from September 2007: "Following a motion passed in the Scottish parliament the EARL project is to be suspended." Work "will be preserved and archived in a manner which does not close down future options."
"It's cancelled. The Scottish National party decided after the last election here that they had better things to do with the £600m it was going to cost to tunnel under the runway," said the airport spokesman. Certainly the airport's owner BAA, which originally pitched the link as an integral part of the airport's expansion plans, wasn't paying.
There is, it's true, a tram on the way. But it looks like Edinburgh airport is headed for the worst of all carbon footprints: yet more flights to England and yet more cars heading for the airport.
I am in favour of schoolchildren planting trees. I am not in favour of greenwashing airports.