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Flight fight

With plans for a third runway at Heathrow currently under consultation and airports cross the UK looking to expand, David Matthews surveys the new coalitions linking local residents' opposition to environmental concerns about climate change

January 30, 2008
12 min read

It is the best of times and the worst of times to be a climate change activist. The topic is more potent than it has ever been, yet political action on climate change still limps far behind the science, and the science itself fails to keep up with what is actually happening to our climate. Nowhere is this inertia more evident than in the attitude of the government and the public to flying.

From international hubs to tiny airfields, airports are expanding across the UK. The government is currently holding a consultation on the expansion of Heathrow, where a proposed third runway could see the number of planes rise from 473,000 to more than 720,000 a year. Almost every major hub is pressing for more flights, extra runways and new terminals, while, at the other end of the scale, even tiny airfields like Lydd in the Kent marshes have their sights set on growth. But equally remarkable is the scale and variety of protest against these airport expansions. Virtually every project is being opposed, by campaigns both locally and nationally.

‘Climate change and noise are the two factors driving the campaigners. What initially gets residents campaigning is the noise, the sheer number of planes going overhead. But for most of the large environmental groups climate change is the key factor,’ says John Stewart, chair of the national umbrella body Airport Watch. ‘Local and national are brought together. Government can’t be serious about climate change and continue with an aggressive programme of airport expansion.’

Campaigns have sprung up against a background of perceived failure in government climate policy towards aviation expansion. In December 2003, the government white paper, The Future of Air Transport gave the go ahead for a massive programme of airport building at Heathrow, Stansted, Newcastle, Bristol and many other sites to facilitate the growth of what it sees as an economically crucial industry. In this rush to expand, the looming issue of climate change has been virtually ignored, as have the persistent local complaints about aircraft noise and the destruction of countryside.

Airport expansion campaigners say that the current 6-7 per cent share of UK greenhouse gas emissions caused by flying will grow rapidly in the coming decades. According to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, even if the aviation industry grew at only half the rate it did in 2004, by 2050 the industry would consume between half and all of the UK carbon budget necessary to prevent ‘dangerous’ climate change. And because the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are released at such a high altitude, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that the climate changing effect of flying is around two to four times greater than if the carbon dioxide produced were emitted on the ground. Far from doing their bit to avoid climate change, airports and airlines are being allowed to trample over the efforts of the rest of society.

Coming together

Airport Watch, founded in 2000, reflects the scope of opposition arranged against airport expansion. It loosely links together major international environmental bodies, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, with conservation groups like the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the National Trust. Also joining the movement have been wildlife organisations including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, local anti-noise campaigns, the World Development Movement and more radical direct action groups like Plane Stupid and Rising Tide, to name a few.

Co-operation between groups with very different initial concerns has in many places led to major success, not least because by working together groups can neutralise the most regular criticisms levelled at them. Noise campaigners who have also taken on board messages about the melting ice caps are harder to dismiss as ‘nimbys’, whereas a green group allied to the local parish council is better placed to resist ‘tree-hugging’ stereotypes.

In August 2007, the Camp for Climate Action at Heathrow attracted international attention, helped by the Independent newspaper who revealed that BAA were seeking an injunction to not only keep groups like Plane Stupid away from the airport and large parts of the London transport network, but also to restrict members of the National Trust, the RSPB and the Woodland Trust because of their affiliation to Airport Watch. By building such a wide coalition against Heathrow, it has become harder for the airports to portray opposition as a radical fringe.

Not only are different groups uniting at an organisational level, but residents’ campaigns are being increasingly influenced by the tactics of the direct action environmental groups.

‘Local residents have politely and obediently responded to planning applications, written to their councillors or MP, written to government ministers – and all the other polite middle class things to do … and been fobbed off time and time again,’ says Sarah Clayton of Airport Watch.

‘They are becoming frustrated, and increasingly realise that some form of direct action is the only way to actually get the powers-that-be to sit up and take notice. Middle England ladies in pearls and twin sets are becoming, cautiously, quite interested in direct action out of desperation and despair at the conventional democratic process. Climate Camp was a remarkable success in many ways.’

Divide and rule

Yet there still remains a split between the concerns of residents and those of the environmental groups, and this can allow airports to divide and rule campaigns against them. In 2006, the Duchy of Lancaster proposed a £3million plan to expand the capacity of Tatenhill, a former second world war airfield near Burton-on-Trent, to accommodate 20,000 more flights a year on top of the current 30,000. During a planning inquiry in November last year into the development, the local opposition – Tatenhill Action Group – dropped its challenge after the Duchy agreed to noise restrictions, limited operating hours and restrictions on jets. Friends of the Earth was left alone, still opposing the expansion on climate change grounds.

‘The place where you have the most success is where all parties play all cards regarding local and national issues,’ explains Chris Crean, the Midlands regional campaigner for Friends of the Earth, who continues to fight Tatenhill’s expansion, ‘and equally where they are aware of how the application fits into planning policies, be they local, regional, or national.’

Integration of the climate change argument is increasingly important in any campaign, as it continues to move up the political agenda. Pat Mathewson, of Airport Concern Exeter, argues that, ‘In Exeter there was a consensus not to use the climate change argument; to keep it local; to focus on noise; to sound as if we were not against the airport as such; asking for sympathy for those under the flight path and so on. I think in retrospect this was a mistake. I did, personally, use climate change in my personal arguments to the local councillors.’

The potential of the anti-expansion coalitions is plain to see. Combining a wider green agenda with stiff local defiance, many campaigners see parallels with the opposition to road building schemes in the 1990s. Yet without clear expansion flashpoints, environmental groups may lose their newfound allies and be unable to carry the momentum against airports into the wider movement against climate change.

Just as the composition of anti-expansion groups is complex and changing, so are their methods. Direct action has proved to be the most successful in attracting media attention, with the Camp for Climate Action last August making headlines and the blockade of a Manchester airport security check-in by Plane Stupid and Manchester Climate Action in October also receiving widespread media attention.

Direct action pros and cons

‘Other forms of protest simply don’t work anymore,’ claims Robbie Gillett, an activist for Plane Stupid. ‘Marching from A to B and passively listening to a speaker at a rally will not be enough to stop climate change. At best these can help people get involved. But at worst, they can leave people feeling disempowered.’ ‘For example, the action last October at Manchester airport involving seven people locking on and blockading the domestic flight departure lounge got more media attention than the march in December with 5,000 people in London.’

Yet the media coverage of direct action is very often tinged with alarmism in the shadow of 9/11, with the Sun, for example, running headlines such as ‘Activists plot Heathrow hell’ when the climate campers assembled last summer. Some activists, although by no means a majority, have warned that high-profile national direct action risks scaring off more ‘moderate’ support for local campaigns.

‘The legal controversy around the [climate] camp was useful, but generally direct action is a distraction and can damage our support amongst more moderate people,’ says Jeremy Birch of Bristol Friends of the Earth, which is currently campaigning to prevent a doubling of passengers at Bristol International Airport.

However, as long as public opinion increasingly demands action on climate change, and aviation protesters can demonstrate they have a broad base of support, then direct action will become an increasingly powerful tool for those who feel powerless using traditional channels of protest. It looks set to overtake marching and petitioning as a tactic to gain the media’s attention over aviation expansion, especially as a small group of direct activists are far better able to deliver an ‘on message’ argument to the press.

Gary Dwyer, part of the media team for the Camp for Climate Action, says: ‘Imagine if those 1,500 people at the camp had signed a card to their MP and tell me what you think would’ve happened.’

‘Direct action opens doors, it ramps up pressure, it beckons the spotlight over. But it’s more than just aggressive lobbying; it empowers those who take part. They go away enthused and fired up, feeling like they can be heard and that they do have the right to directly affect things that affect them. Once tasted, you keep going back for more.’

The resort to direct action is partly a result of the lack of success campaigners have had convincing local politicians to stand up to central government policy. But there have been a few victories. In November 2006, Uttlesford district council rejected a planning application from BAA to allow a big increase in flights at Stansted, after it was bombarded with objections from local communities. Although a new runway is still a possibility, Ruth Kelly has indicated that the expansion of Heathrow, not Stansted, will be the government’s priority, and is now the focus of the battle against airport growth in the south east.

A public consultation into the building of a third runway and a sixth terminal at Heathrow is due to be completed on 27 February, but campaigners say that often ‘consultations’ are far more ornamental than real. ‘Feedback’ is sprinkled over essentially unchanged plans.

More likely to trip up the government are EU pollution limits, due to come into force in 2010, which John Stewart says are already exceeded in parts of London under flight paths. The idea touted by the government that better plane and car cleanliness will by 2020 have reduced pollution to European standards, despite a new runway, is utterly implausible, he says.

The influence of the state-backed expansion juggernaut means that local politicians are often no more willing to listen to the arguments against airport growth than the government. Campaigners from Airport Concern Exeter claimed that certain councillors had conflicts of interest that ‘bordered on corruption’, citing that the leader of East Devon district council, who will receive Exeter airport’s planning application, councillor Sara Randall Johnson, is also the head of PR for budget airline Flybe.

Changing government policy

Even if they are willing to oppose expansion plans, the difficulty that local authorities face is that after a planning or public inquiry into an airport’s application for expansion, the final decision is made by one or more departments of central government. Power over airport expansion is centralised, and therefore the ultimate aim of most major groups remains policy change from the government.

‘The number one aim is to get government policy to change,’ concludes Sarah Clayton. ‘Government is the first target, as well as the EU. Airlines just do what they are allowed to, to make money. Government can control the future projections, future expansion or not, and so on. So a primary aim is getting the aviation white paper modified, so it is in line with UK climate change policy. Ministers at the Department of Transport are dimly aware that there is a massive inconsistency in policy, and at some stage something has to give.’

There was minimal change to the aviation white paper when it was reviewed in 2006, and proposals to include aviation into the European Union’s emissions trading scheme by 2011 have been repeatedly attacked as inadequate by Friends of the Earth Europe. Nonetheless, the lack of any current international framework on aviation has not prevented governments from taking unilateral action on domestic flights. As part of France’s recent ‘grenelle de l’environnement’, President Sarkozy announced taxes on domestic flights where the same route has a TGV connection, for example from Paris to Lyon or Paris to Bordeaux.

­­­Governments may be unwilling to act to stem the explosion in aviation and airport building, but ultimately only they hold the power to do so. Campaigners will have most success if they manage to combine broad-based, localised opposition with the desperate need for urgent policy changes to avert climate change via creative and inclusive direct action initiatives.

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