15 October 2012

Why we still need to oppose airport expansion

Aviation is the fastest growing cause of climate change. Last time the government bothered to check, it made up 13% of the UK's climate impact. If we keep expanding airports and keep flying as much as we are right now, then we are on a one-way ticket to climate change. Yet aviation - or rather, airport expansion - is back on the agenda in a really big way. Politicians of all stripes are using new runways as a test of how serious they are about getting the UK out of the recession.

Plane carbon footprint
The disease is infectious - and spreading. Even those MPs whom you'd expect to be environmentally savvy, such as Tim Yeo, former chair of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee and current chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, have caught it. Yeo, who voted against the third runway in 2009 on environmental grounds, taunted the Prime Minister over the summer, asking whether he was a "man or a mouse" - men, it seems, support big, thrusting runways as a sign of their commitment to Britain's economic virility.

What is it about airport expansion that so arouses politicians - and what tactics should we, as people who understand the urgent need to tackle climate change and get off oil, respond with?

The answer to the first is simple. Politicians - at least those with enough experience to understand the limitations of managing a globalised economy - know that economic growth is not something over which the government has a lot of control. The Chancellor can't go round to every small business in the UK, buying a handful of widgets from each, personally pulling us back into the black. Neither does macro-economic policy impact in the compressed timelines that our media cycles demand, especially when you consider the interaction between our economy and the equally moribund economies of our trading partners. He or she is playing a waiting game - sit tight, sound credible and hope that the wheel stops turning whilst you're still in office.

No third runway placard
Politics in respect of economics is mostly about mood music and gestures - big, sweeping generalisations which sound credible enough to laypeople and commentators. Infrastructure is a great example of this: a totemic solution to the crisis. If we build an airport, goes the argument, then more people will fly here to buy the stuff we make, creating lots of new jobs. Meanwhile, our businesses can fly more easily to other countries and sell stuff overseas. Add to that a healthy dose of jealous national rivalry - why do we have fewer flights to X than the French / what if people fly through Paris or Amsterdam instead of London - and you have the perfect platform for a pro-growth, pro-business politician to argue from.

Thankfully the arguments against airport expansion are far more robust than the base calculation that infrastructure = growth.

First we need to expose the economic nonsense that the aviation industry and its supporters are peddling. We need to point out that when the owners of Heathrow Airport complained about a dearth of flights to China, they forgot to include the 3,000 flights to Hong Kong. London is the best connected city in the world, served by five major airports and a high-speed rail link to continental Europe. Heathrow already offers unrivalled connectivity to 20 of the world’s 27 key business destinations, with more flights to key markets than any other airport in Europe – more than the combined total of its two nearest rivals, Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt.

Elephant in the room
If Heathrow is so crowded that airlines can't find space for more flights to China or India, we must ask, then how did Virgin Atlantic find the space to lay on new flights to Manchester when it lost the West Coast Mainline? Even if Heathrow is full, then Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City airports all have considerable unused capacity. Surely if there was that much demand for these destinations, airlines would either scrap wasteful domestic flights from Heathrow or use this spare capacity to lay on these flights?

Then there are the local arguments. I'm focusing on Heathrow, as it remains the most likely candidate for expansion. But trust me - the case against expansion at Stansted, Gatwick or Luton is equally strong. So too are the local arguments against expanding Birmingham, or Manchest, or Leeds Bradford airports. Boris Island, as the Mayor of London has modestly called it, is so preposterous that it's not even worth me explaining why. (Oh go on then: it would cost taxpayers £30 billion just to connect it to the existing transport network.)

So, Heathrow. A third runway would destroy hundreds of houses in Sipson and Harmonsworth, forcing around one thousand people out of their homes. It would involve digging up a graveyard in which generations are buried. It would deafen London with the roar of 220,000 new flights each and every year. It would breach EU regulations on air pollution - in fact, Heathrow and London are already breaching those regulations. It would means thousands more trips on the M4, A4, M40, M25 and the tube, bringing much of the capital's already-overloaded transport network to a grinding halt. It would drown out teachers trying to educate tens of thousands in classrooms right across west London.

Don't think that would be the end of it, either. The most vocal lobbyists aren't content with a third runway at Heathrow. They're already calling for a fourth.

Paper planeThen there is the impact that third runway would have on our climate change emissions. A new runway at Heathrow would emit as much as Kenya, which is hardly going to endear us at the global climate change talks. We already have to cut our emissions by 80% from 1990 levels; if aviation grows instead of making major cuts, then other sectors would have to go even further to compensate. That means higher fuel bills and more people stuck in fuel poverty - hardly the equal society we should be striving towards.

Some people, like Tim Yeo, say that the European Emissions Trading Scheme means that we can expand our airports without breaking our carbon limits. They are talking out of their arses. The ETS was broken long before aviation was included, with polluters being given so many free carbon credits that the price of carbon crashed and never recovered. This latest round is no better - and not just because you can buy offset credits from seriously dodgy schemes outside of Europe. Besides, we've seen how craven most MPs are. If the aviation industry builds a new runway, the airlines will make best use of it and politicians will let them.

It should be clear by now that airport expansion is a really dumb idea. In fact, it is so stupid an idea that once understood, it provokes a strange reaction in people. It becomes tempting to use flying - particularly for leisure - as a litmus test of your commitment to ecological causes. If you don't fly, you are virtuous; if you do fly, you are beyond hope.

This is incredibly counter-productive, and I want to end by warning against it. Aviation still has a special hold over many of us. It takes us to new cities, new places and new people. It transports us to our holidays and to absent relatives, and it brings us home again. For many people, asking them to give up their freedom to fly is like asking them to give up electricity - so far outside their comfort zone as to alienate them just by asking.

We need to remember, as people who are working for real change, to start our arguments from where people are. That means accepting that it's okay for people to oppose airport expansion before they give up on flying. We all have our carbon vices, and for some people, it's the occasional international flight. We're all going to have to fly less if we're to live sustainably, but you can ease people in gently. Persuade them to oppose airport expansion, and let them see for themselves that there's a life without airmiles.Richard George

Richard George is a founding member of Plane Stupid and a Climate Campaigner at Greenpeace.
Photos: 1. Plane carbon footprint; 2. No Heathrow expansion placards; 3. The elephant in the room at Town Hall protest against Manchester airport; 4. Paper plane at Salisbury carnival - all photos Plane Stupid, Creative Commons license.

This post was originally part of a week about Flying on the Transition Network's Social Reporting Project

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