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Farnborough: Why did Greta Thunberg join hundreds of activists protesting an English airport?

Climate activist Greta Thunberg takes part in a march to Farnborough Airport in southern England,27 January 2024.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg takes part in a march to Farnborough Airport in southern England,27 January 2024. Copyright Extinction Rebellion
Copyright Extinction Rebellion
By Lottie Limb with AP
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The airport is seeking to increase its maximum number of flights to 70,000 a year, including private trips with pets.

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Greta Thunberg fronted a march against the expansion of Farnborough Airport in England this weekend.

The Swedish climate activist joined hundreds of local residents and other campaigners outside the airport in Hampshire on Saturday, at a march organised by Extinction Rebellion.

Farnborough Airport has been the site of numerous protests since it applied last year to increase its maximum number of annual flights from 50,000 to 70,000.

“The fact that using private jets is both legally and socially allowed today in an escalating climate emergency is completely detached from reality,” Thunberg said.

“There are few examples that show as clearly how the rich elite is sacrificing present and future living conditions on this planet so they can maintain their extreme and violent lifestyles.”

The 21-year-old climate campaigner is expected to appear at a court in London this week to face a public order offence charge.

She was arrested in October during a demonstration against the Energy Intelligence Forum, a major oil and gas industry conference dubbed ‘the Oscars of oil’.

Why are climate activists protesting at Farnborough Airport?

Private jets are a continued target of climate campaigners. As Todd Smith, former airline pilot and Extinction Rebellion (XR) spokesperson says, “Flying is the fastest way to fry the planet, and private jets are the most polluting way to fly.”

European NGO Transport and Environment calculates that most private jets are up to 14 times more polluting per passenger than commercial flights, and 50 times more polluting than trains. Which makes them the most polluting mode of transport on the planet per passenger kilometre.

Former airline pilot and XR spokesman Todd Smith: "Surely it’s a no brainer to ban private jets and stop expanding these luxury airports in the midst of a climate crisis?"
Former airline pilot and XR spokesman Todd Smith: "Surely it’s a no brainer to ban private jets and stop expanding these luxury airports in the midst of a climate crisis?"Extinction Rebellion

Farnborough - the UK’s only dedicated ‘business aviation’ airport - has some particularly egregious stats in the air, according to campaigners.

Flights to and from the hub carried an average of 2.5 passengers per flight in 2022, XR says. That year saw a 27 per cent increase in flights to and from the airport to 33,120, compared to 2021.

Insult was added to injury, as far as the group is concerned when the airport started catering to a ‘pets on jets’ service. K9 Jets company ran its first flight from Dubai to Farnborough - which is located 64 kilometres southwest of London - in September 2023.

“I’m not the slightest bit surprised K9 Jets is the latest ludicrous service they’ve added to their portfolio,” former Thomas Cook first officer Smith said at the time.

Farnborough Airport is an important hub for ‘business travel’

In response to Saturday’s protest, Farnborough Airport said that it was an important hub for business and corporate travel and that it recognised the importance of reducing its environmental impact.

“The airport’s environmental footprint is a fraction that of a traditional commercial airport, yet it serves as one of the largest employment sites in the region," it said in a statement.

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Campaigners contest the airport’s business aviation image, however. A report from campaign group Possible last year found that more than half of Farnborough’s departing flights in the busy summer months are to Mediterranean airports. During winter, there’s a spike in flights to airports with easy access to the Alps - suggesting that pleasure, rather than business, is uppermost on jet setters' minds.

“As a local resident and a mum of two I am utterly appalled at the airport’s plan to expand when we should be banning private flying completely,” says Sarah Hart, an office assistant from Farnborough. 

“We need to be taking drastic steps to ensure a liveable world for all our children, not increasing our use in fossil fuels.”

Hundreds of residents and activists set off pink smoke flares as they marched from Farnborough town centre to the airport on Saturday. XR’s model lightship named after Greta Thunberg was in tow, alongside the group’s iconic Red Rebels and 60 drummers.

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Speakers, including Thunberg, addressed the crowd from the ship’s helm outside the airport’s main gate.

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