Luton Airport expansion ads banned for greenwashing

Press contact: veronica@adfreecities.org.uk 

In a landmark decision reported in the BBC, Guardian, Business Green, Campaign and more today, the UK ad watchdog has banned adverts for London Luton Airport for misleading the public over the climate impacts of its proposed expansion from 18 million to 32 million passengers per year. 

This ruling raises serious questions about the validity of Luton Airport’s ‘Green Growth Controlled Framework’, which has been central to the airport’s marketing of its expansion during a lengthy public consultation over its growth plans.

The banned ads promoted the airport’s expansion plans, saying “If we miss our environmental limits, our expansion will be stopped in its tracks”; but these limits failed to include emissions from flights – which would be by far the greatest source of additional emissions if the airport’s expansion were approved. 

Luton Airport’s ‘green growth’ advertising is a house of cards that immediately collapses under scrutiny… The ASA’s ban underlines how advertising is pushing us in the wrong direction.

Veronica wignall, Adfree Cities Codirector

The ban spotlights the role of advertising and greenwash in driving demand for flying as the aviation industry fails to decarbonise – Adfree Cities is calling for a tobacco-style ban on advertising for highly polluting industries, including aviation, fossil fuels and SUVs – a step recently taken by Edinburgh and Sheffield Councils.

Above: Luton Airport’s adverts on TfL billboard posters and in the New Statesman magazine.

This is the first time the ASA has banned airport ads for making false green claims, after complaints made by Adfree Cities and our partner campaign Badvertising, the Stay Grounded network, climate charity Possible and a number of local airport expansion opposition groups.

Veronica Wignall, codirector at Adfree Cities said: Luton Airport’s “green growth” advertising is a house of cards that immediately collapses under scrutiny. Airport expansion is the extreme opposite of “green”, and sure enough, Luton has failed to include emissions from flights in its environmental accounting. This level of deception is totally shocking – it’s like advertising cigarettes as healthy.” 

“The ASA’s ban underlines how advertising is pushing us in the wrong direction – we need to end greenwashing, stop airport expansion and make sustainable ways of travelling like rail and public transport more affordable. We’re calling for a tobacco-style ban on polluting advertising, as a logical step to support real progress on these goals.” 

Andrew Labourne from local campaign group Luton And District Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (LADACAN) said:This is a great decision – local people are sick of the spin from Luton Rising which tries to greenwash their plans for massive expansion of Luton Airport. There is overwhelming rejection of the noise blight, traffic chaos, carbon emissions and loss of green space it would cause.

The ads for Luton Airport Ltd, which rebranded as Luton Rising in 2021, appeared in the New Statesman, on Meta and on billboard posters across the TfL network in March-May 2024.

Local people are sick of the spin from Luton Rising

Andrew Lambourne, Luton And District Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (LADACAN)

In its ruling, the ASA said the purpose of the ads, made by agency Hope, was “to reassure people about the efforts being taken to mitigate the environmental impacts caused by expansion”, and that people would expect emissions from additional flights to be included in these efforts. The watchdog also ruled that the imagery of an aeroplane taxiing on a runway added to this impression.

However, the watchdog noted that aircraft emissions are not included in the environmental standards promoted in the expansion ads, despite already making up more than 80% of Luton’s greenhouse gas emissions – a figure that does not include non-CO2 emissions, such as soot particles, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and water contrails, which can triple the global warming effect of flights.

The ASA’s ruling raises questions about the validity of Luton Airport’s heavily marketed ‘Green Growth Controlled Framework’, which has been central to the airport’s marketing of its expansion during the public consultation. The airport caused controversy amongst environmental groups when it rebranded as ‘Luton Rising’ in 2021.

Freddie Daley from the Badvertising campaign said: “It’s a hard fact that any airport expansion will jeopardise the UK’s net zero commitments. Adverts that misleadingly claim otherwise to try and garner support, both publicly and politically, must be rightly called out and banned.” 

Daley also said that regulation was falling short and called for advertising restrictions to prevent climate misinformation, saying “While the ASA has acted in the interests of the planet here, regulation of advertising is falling well short of the challenges posed by climate misinformation and corporate greenwash. We need robust regulation on advertising that prevents and restricts adverts like these from ever entering circulation in the first place, rather than an industry regulator trying to clean up the mess afterwards.”

The UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) has advised the Government to halt airport expansions until there are better measures to control the greenhouse gas emissions of aviation, a highly polluting sector that has widely missed its voluntary climate commitments and is currently lagging behind other industries in efforts to decarbonise

In January 2024, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport shocked the sector when it announced a suite of new rules to become “quieter, cleaner and better”, including a ban on night flights and private jets, and a commitment to no further expansion – abandoning plans for an additional runway. 

Luton Airport’s expansion proposals, which include a new terminal to accommodate an additional 14 million passengers per year, have been strongly opposed by local resident groups and adjacent Hertfordshire, North Hertfordshire and Dacorum councils. The ads appeared in the run up to the Government’s decision on Luton’s application to expand, which has now been delayed to 4th October 2024

The ASA has warned Luton Airport that any future advertising must not omit material information about the environmental impact of its proposed expansion.

Above: Luton Airport’s adverts in the New Statesman magazine, placed in the run up to the Government’s decision on the airport’s expansion.

Hannah Lawrence from the Stay Grounded network said:“The ASA’s ruling is further confirmation that airport expansion is totally incompatible with the emissions reductions that we urgently need and shows that the aviation industry cannot be trusted when it comes to reducing their emissions. While they use greenwashing adverts to delay meaningful climate action, those who have never flown continue to bear the biggest burden from the climate crisis. This important ruling is further evidence that we need an urgent ban on airline adverts, an end to airport expansion, and measures to fairly reduce flights.”  

ClientEarth lawyer Johnny White said: “The watchdog’s intervention was another example of a fossil fuel-dependent company – whose business involves significant climate-warming emissions – misleading the public through omission in its marketing. Similarly to KLM’s adverts recently found unlawful by a Dutch Court, Luton Airport’s ads failed to mention that it excluded the largest source of emissions from expanding air traffic: the flights themselves.

The UK Supreme Court recently ruled that the inevitable downstream emissions from oil fields must be considered when approving new fossil fuel projects. This ASA decision affirms the same commonsense principle for advertising: companies can’t ignore substantial emissions linked to their businesses when claiming they’re going green.”

Press enquiries: please contact veronica@adfreecities.org.uk.

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