Dublin Airport Wants Millions More Passengers, But Should It Take Millions Fewer?

The city’s airport operator, daa, has been planning since its February 2019 Capital Investment Programme 2020–2024 (CIP) to apply to increase its passenger cap from 32 million a year to 40 million per year.

This figure remains in its May 2021 draft carbon-reduction strategy. “Some areas of the airport are at or approaching their capacity,” says the strategy.

New infrastructure, like more airplane parking, car parking and bigger terminals is imperative, says its CIP, to reach this target – and beyond that, further into the future, a bigger target of accommodating 55 million passengers per year.

It hasn’t yet applied for planning permission to increase the passenger cap, said a daa spokesperson last Wednesday.

But “it is anticipated that the airport will grow into the future”, they said, in line with government objectives to develop international connectivity and the Fingal County Council’s area plan for the airport.

The daa’s draft carbon-reduction strategy, meanwhile, outlines how it will stay within certain carbon-emissions restrictions for airports while doing so, by changing how it runs the transport hub.

But those who advocate for less carbon dependency argue that as a facilitator of air travel, the airport has to dig deeper, and that it has a responsibility to reduce emissions beyond its own carbon output, and consider those emitted by airplanes, and passengers travelling to and from the airport by car.

What It Talks About

After the International Panel on Climate Change put out a special report in 2018, which foretold the disastrous impacts of global warming of more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the Airports Council International (ACI) made a commitment to reach net-zero carbon by 2050.

The daa signed up too – and its carbon-reduction plan has the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Currently, the airport’s draft May 2021 carbon-reduction strategy – which they said is being revised – sets a first target of cutting the emissions by 30 percent by 2030, meaning from 24,375 tonnes of C02 in 2019 to 17,062 tonnes in 2030.

With the publication of the Government’s Climate Action Plan 2021, the target has moved to 51 percent, said a daa spokesperson on Tuesday. “And so a review is needed.”

The May 2021 draft, through, does show the kind of approach that the airport is taking.

It lays out 15 ways to cut emissions by changing how it runs the airport, with measures like switching its lights to sustainable LEDs, upgrading its ventilation systems, adding more solar panels, transitioning its vehicle fleet to electric, and to keep buying 100 percent renewable energy.

What that target doesn’t consider, though, is emissions from flights or passengers travelling to and from the airport. The airport is not “directly responsible” for these third-party emissions, the strategy says.

In 2019, third parties emitted close to 388,000 tonnes of C02, the strategy says – which is more than 15 times the airport’s operations emissions.

Of those almost 388,000 tonnes in 2019, more than 41,000 tonnes were spat out as a result of passengers travelling to and from the airport, the strategy says, and almost 259,000 tonnes came from aircraft landing and taking off.

How Passengers Get There

Sadhbh O’Neill, an assistant professor of law at Dublin City University, says that the airport, as a host for these activities, is indirectly responsible for third-party emissions too.

Reducing emissions from its own airport operations through things like onsite energy generation is good, she says. “That’s all sensible, that’s all stuff they have to do.”

But the strategy hasn’t given adequate attention to public transport access to the airport, she says. “They could use their leverage to insist on better public transport connections to the airport.”

The strategy does mention the benefits expected to come from planned future public-transport changes such as BusConnects and Metrolink.

It also says that “for those who have no other choice but to drive their car to get to the airport, we will continue to progressively install more EV chargers in our multi-storey car parks”.

The daa has also said in its Capital Investment Programme that it plans to move bus bays away from the entrance to Terminal 1 to behind the multi-storey car park, and add 600 car parking spaces.

Its car parks are losing revenue due to a lack of space so adding capacity, it says, would “avoid customers transferring to alternative modes of transport”.

A daa spokesperson said on Tuesday that the private car was an important part of how the airport is accessed by passengers.

“Particularly for those travelling from locations where there are limited public transport options, or at times of the day when public transport are less frequent,” they said.

The daa will submit in its forthcoming review of the CIP, they said, “a series of measures to promote both Active Modes, the Public Transport offering and electric vehicle charging”.

An objective in the Dublin Airport Local Area Plan is to limit the provision of new parking, and maximise the use of public transport.

Ignoring Flights Emissions?

Airports also have a role in facilitating air travel, which hasn’t been addressed by the daa in its carbon-reduction strategy, says O’Neill, the law professor.

The daa’s May 2021 draft carbon reduction strategy does note that it has installed electric chargers for aircraft and baggage handling agents to use instead of fuel, and it works on reducing delays and preventing aircraft idling.

It also mentions the potential of biofuels and renewable fuels that airlines and aircraft manufacturers should work towards using, but notes that it cannot impact on this technology itself.

But “their attitude is very much to cater for predicted traffic demand, both air traffic and passenger traffic. And that’s a recipe for disaster”, says O’Neill.

Andrew Murphy, aviation director at the NGO Transport & Environment, says that a really important point is not just whether the airport takes into account aviation emissions but whether Ireland as a country does. “Or it continues to keep them off the books. Which is its current approach.”

The government has excluded all aviation emissions from its national climate action plan and so also its 2030 targets, he says. “That’s enormously problematic.”

From a climate point of view, these are orphaned emissions, he says. “And they’ve sort of been left to the responsibility of a very ineffective UN body, which is developing this CORSIA system.”

(The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, aims to stabilise CO2 emissions at 2020 levels by requiring airlines to offset the growth of their emissions after 2020.)

The state not counting aviation emissions is also ineffective from an economic planning and investment point of view, says Murphy. “Basically, how we get people on and off the island is pretty important for economic development, for connectivity.”

“If we can’t ensure ways of doing that in a low-carbon manner in the coming years and decades, then we’re putting Ireland at a disadvantage, and we’re not doing anything for our connectivity,” he says.

There are solutions around using renewable electricity to produce clean fuels for these sectors, he says, and Ireland could import those but it could also produce them.

“If Ireland plans how much renewable electricity it needs in the coming decades it also needs to take into account whether it wants to produce low-carbon fuels here in Ireland,” he says.

“So long as the Irish government isn’t including it in its national development plan or in its climate action plan,” he says, “we’re kind of missing that strategic plan for these sectors.”

What Future?

David Healy, a Green Party councillor on Fingal County Council and chair of its environment committee, says the airport wants to keep growing and growing and call it sustainable. “But nobody has a definition of what that’s supposed to mean.”

Meanwhile, Dublin Airport has been looking to encourage night-time flights so as to become a hub for transatlantic flights, he says.

To do so, the airport provides lower landing fees for very early morning for flights from North America, he says, in time for passengers to grab another flight to mainland Europe.

“They have a bit of a market advantage because so many other European airports won’t allow that,” he says.

O’Neill, the law professor, says long-haul flights should be reduced. “It’s more important that we focus on reducing the most environmentally damaging travels.”

No one wants to limit international travel, she says, so there should be a push to make rail and sail to reach the UK and mainland Europe cheaper and smoother.

“It’s slow travel for sure, but at the end of the day, it’s much more sustainable than the airline model,” she says.

Says O’Neill: “If the airport starts putting [more] limits on passenger numbers, what they’re afraid of is that they’ll lose business to some other regional airport.” Air travel might become more expensive too, she says.

Ann Graves, a Sinn Féin councillor on Fingal County Council, says people should be encouraged to holiday in Ireland more than abroad. “Long-haul flights for leisure should be capped.”

Meanwhile, the government needs to look at how to reduce the cost of holidaying at home, she says. “It’s so expensive to holiday at home. And that’s why so many people go away. You couldn’t get better than Ireland when the weather is good.”

Murphy, aviation director at the NGO Transport & Environment, says that cleaner fuels are going to take time to scale up. “So for the coming years, the most effective way to reduce emissions is to fly less.”

There are already signs this is being recognised by business travellers working for companies with commitments to climate action, he says. “There is some evidence from different companies that they are committing to flying less.”

Which makes him think that the future predictions for passenger growth at Dublin Airport are optimistic, he says. “Dublin Airport is obviously going to talk of growth and more growth and use that to get more investment and build more.”

“The question is where is that growth going to come from and how realistic are those growth forecasts?” he says.

Ultimately, it’s down to the Irish government to recognise and support people flying less, he says, rather than – as it did with the pandemic – giving the aviation sector a financial package to build back demand.

The daa welcomed that, saying it had a long journey to travel “as we seek to reconnect Ireland to the rest of the world and fulfil our role as an economic enabler for the Irish economy in terms of trade, tourism and social connectivity.”

Of course daa is going to try to keep growing, says Murphy, but it’s down to the government to have a longer-term vision. “And that long-term vision is lacking from the government, you know, from successive governments.”

Healy, the Green Party councillor, says it will probably be possible to have some aviation in the future. “If you time it right and route it right.”

“What we know from the way that aviation affects the climate, is that unrestrained aviation is disastrous,” he says. “But the idea that we’re going to keep expanding aviation is certainly not adequate with our climate goals under the Paris Agreement.”

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Claudia Dalby: Claudia Dalby is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She's especially interested in stories about the southside, transport, and kids in the city. Get in touch at [email protected]

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