Saudi Arabia Unveils Plan for the World's Largest Airport

Norman Foster wins yet another airport design competition.

Airport view

Foster + Partners

Foster + Partners won an international competition to build what is expected to be one of the world's largest airports in Saudi Arabia. The firm says the airport will "boost Riyadh’s position as a global logistics hub, stimulate transport, trade, and tourism, and act as a bridge linking the East with the West." It will be a contentious project by a controversial architect.

Aviation is one of the most contentious and difficult problems in the fight against climate change. Nothing packs in the portability and punch of jet fuel, and burning it creates significant carbon dioxide emissions.

Nobody agrees on how much: The industry says it is responsible for 2.1% of global emissions, while others add in radiative forcing and come up with 4.9%. In an earlier post looking at the true carbon footprint of flying, I tried to figure out the carbon cost of the airports, parking structures, and the planes themselves. I concluded: "We really don't know where it ends. What's the footprint of the meal we ate on the plane, with its disposable plastic packaging? It all adds up to a number that is far greater than just the fuel burn. Yet all over the world, people are building new giant airports and new planes to fly between them."

None of the emission numbers seem very high, but these emissions come from a small number of people. As Our World in Data noted, "The fact that aviation is relatively small for global emissions as a whole, but of large importance for individuals that fly is due to large inequalities in the world. Most people in the world do not take flights. There is no global reliable figure, but often cited estimates suggest that more than 80% of the global population have never flown."

Airport Plan

Foster + Partners

King Salman International Airport is vast, covering an area of approximately 57 square kilometers, allowing for six parallel runways. 

 Luke Fox, Head of Studio, Foster + Partners, said: “Looking forward to the future, the new King Salman International Airport reimagines the traditional terminal as a single concourse loop, served by multiple entrances." -a giant square concourse with a city, an aerotropolis, in the middle, "The terminal is very much of its place and connects passengers to the sensory experiences of the city, with natural elements, tempered light and state-of-the-art facilities.” 

Concourse plan
King Salman International Airport.

Foster + Partners

Oh, and it will be green: "With sustainability at its core, the new airport will achieve LEED Platinum certification by incorporating cutting edge green initiatives into its design and will be powered by renewable energy."

We have long complained about the contradiction inherent in a LEED-certified airport, suggesting that the use of the building matters. We were not alone, with British advocacy organization Architects Declare calling for firms to ‘evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown.’ This became an issue in 2020 when Foster + Partners was selected for another airport in Saudi Arabia. Sustainability expert Simon Sturges complained in the Architects Journal: "’These sort of projects suggest that Foster + Partners is still engaged with 20th rather than 21st century thinking. This represents a climate betrayal. Global practices such as Foster + Partners, if they were to project Architects Declare principles, could be enormously influential in combating climate change." 

Foster + Partners was an original signatory to Architects Declare, but was having none of this and withdrew from the organization with a statement from founder Norman Foster: 

"Since our founding in 1967, we have pioneered a green agenda and believe that aviation, like any other sector, needs the most sustainable infrastructure to fulfil its purpose. Unlike Architects Declare, we are committed to address that need. We believe that the hallmark of our age, and the future of our globally connected world, is mobility. Mobility of people, goods and information across boundaries. Only by internationally co-ordinated action can we confront the issues of global warming. Aviation has a vital role to play in this process and will continue to do so. You cannot wind the clock backwards."

Plane at the gate
King Salman International Airport.

Foster + Partners

Meanwhile, back in Riyadh, they are projecting massive growth in aviation, with King Salman Airport alone accommodating up to 120 million travelers by 2030 and 185 million travelers, with the capacity to process 3.5 million tons of cargo, by 2050. But all these flights won't be a problem; in his statement, Foster says flying is getting greener, that planes are going further on less fuel (true) and that "The creation of non-fossil fuel alternatives is already a reality and implementation of these new technologies would require no change to existing aircraft fleets. Airbus recently released three concept planes that would be powered by hydrogen rather than jet fuel and which, they claim, could be carrying passengers by 2035." –Not quite so true, at least according to my calculations. The problem is that even as planes get more efficient, the growth of the industry, and the likes of King Salman Airport, outpace the savings in emissions. So as Treehugger's Sami Grover noted earlier, 

"Of course, anyone who has been paying attention to the climate crisis knows that 'minimizing emissions growth' is a far cry from the kinds of aggressive cuts that we really need to be pursuing right now. So just as [ICCT aviation expert Dan] Rutherford told us in an interview last year, technological innovation isn’t going to replace the need—and shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to—ambitious efforts at demand reduction and replacing air travel with alternatives where possible."

Bike lanes in the airport

Foster + Partners

King Salman International Airport looks gorgeous, as most Foster + Partners buildings do. It even has bike lanes! But at some point, we have to face the fact that we can't keep this up. We have to wind the clock backwards. 185 million travelers per year is probably more than the entire world will be able to cope with, let alone one airport.