While Europe pursues net zero, mega-airports are being built in deserts

An artist's impression of Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai, planned to carry up to 260 million passengers per year by 2034
An artist's impression of Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai, planned to carry up to 260 million passengers per year by 2034 - Dubai government

A fault line has emerged along the edges of the European continent. Cross it and you will notice a reversal in attitudes towards flying.

In Europe, governments are working hard to curb aviation in the pursuit of net zero targets. For the rest of the world, however, a league of mega-airports is set to open in the next 10 years.

This week, Willie Walsh, the former British Airways boss and current IATA (International Air Transport Association) chief, said that an “arrogant” Europe risks alienating the world with its green air travel agenda, while the rest of the world continues to focus on growth.

“When I travel around and meet with airline CEOs and politicians, outside of Europe they have a huge appreciation for the value that new connectivity will bring to their economies,” Walsh said at an IATA conference in Dubai, arguing that Europe should focus on developing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which is in short supply, rather than slowing growth in the aviation industry.

The European Commission’s European Green Deal, approved in 2020, says member states must reduce transport emissions by 90 per cent by 2050, compared with 1990 levels. To this end, France has banned domestic flights where the journey could be done in less than two and a half hours by rail, Spain has drafted its own domestic ban, and some groups in the UK are lobbying for a similar law.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, Dublin Airport is limited on how many passengers it can welcome due to restrictions put in place when the airport opened its north runway in 2022. And the Dutch government has reignited its push for fewer night flights coming into Schiphol Airport, due to noise pollution concerns. This all comes against the backdrop of a growing “flight shaming” movement, spearheaded by Greta Thunberg.

The aviation industry produces around two per cent of all human-induced CO2. Accounting for other gases – vapour trails, soot and nitrous oxides which trap heat – the warming effect of aviation is even greater, inching us ever-closer to the 1.5C-above-pre-industrial-levels tipping point, after which the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is at risk of melting. A report published this week by the University of Leeds says that date will probably fall before 2030. Aviation is, of course, only one of many high-polluting industries – fashion, construction and agriculture, for example, release far more greenhouse gases – although aviation is unique in how difficult it is to decarbonise.

Despite this, the rest of the world continues to unveil new, city-sized airports. Dubai has invested billions into turning Al Maktoum International Airport into the biggest in the world for passenger traffic, capable of carrying up to 260 million passengers per year by 2034.

One of the designs for the new Al Maktoum Airport in Dubai
One of the designs for the new Al Maktoum Airport in Dubai - Dubai Media Office

In India, Noida International Airport will become the biggest in the country (70 million passengers), and Singapore has plans for a new Terminal 5 that will more than double the size of the airport.

There are other significant airport projects under way, or in discussion, in Ethiopia (Mega Airport City), the Philippines (Sangley Point), China (Dalian Jinzhou Bay), Saudi Arabia (King Salman International) and Vietnam (Long Thanh). Collectively these will carry many hundreds of millions of passengers per year.

Some might argue that it is only fair that these countries have their chance to reap the benefits of aviation, as Europe has for many decades. A similar argument has been used to justify the proliferation of coal plants in the developing world. Others may argue that the emergence of greener planes, 20 per cent more efficient than the ones they’re replacing, is a consideration. However, with passenger numbers set to boom over the next decade, this will likely outweigh any improvements in efficiency.

Stefan Gössling, a professor at Linnaeus University in Sweden who specialises in climate policy and aviation, points out that the United States remains the world’s biggest aviation polluter per capita.

“A lot of catching-up is going on in the world of aviation,” he says. “Per capita, North America [emitted] 520kg of CO2 from commercial air transport in 2018, Europe was half of that (250kg) and the Asia-Pacific region a fifth of Europe (57kg CO2).”

He adds: “You could argue that Europe is doing the right thing – not trying to catch up on the USA, and rather trying to slim down from their comparatively still very high levels of per-capita emissions.”

Gössling predicts that as climates become more extreme, within a decade politicians in India, China and the Middle East will start to align with European priorities, including approaches to aviation. If he is right, that’ll come just in time for the grand opening of all of those shiny new airports. But too late, perhaps, to sidestep the temperature tipping point after which scientists say there will be no return.