This October a wide coalition of campaign groups launched a pledge that has great implications for UK action on climate change. Aimed at air transport, which is expected to contribute more than half the UK's share of greenhouse gases by 2050, the 'pledge against aviation expansion' invites people to sign up to the statement: 'If the government refuses to back away from its expansion policy, I will take personal action to block airport expansion and to prevent companies from supporting and funding it.' Unlike a routine petition, with which the hope is that a large number of people making the same request will persuade government to change its policies, the pledge is a personal statement of intent to be active. This action could include anything from providing resource support to the campaign overall to blockading construction sites for airport developments.
The pledge comes as a direct follow-up to the government's plans to carry out the biggest single programme of aviation expansion that the UK has ever seen. The Future of Air Transport, the December 2003 aviation white paper, predicted that by 2030 figures for UK airport passengers would be three times the number that they are today. In response, the government is proposing new runways at airports that could include Stansted, Heathrow or Gatwick, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as significant expansion at other British airports.
Such a narrow 'predict and provide' approach to transport has a precedent in policies on road-building. However, a key difference between the mass campaigns against road expansion in the 1990s and the campaign currently building up against aviation expansion, is that the latter is attempting to show the strength of its supporter base at an early stage. A very public and very large level of opposition against Thatcher's 'predict and provide' road-building programme did not really take off until the 1990s, when the direction of development was set and construction work was well on its way. Today, many of the proposed aviation schemes are right back at the starting block. George Marshall of the climate change campaign Rising Tide says: 'We really have a chance of stopping these plans if we can show early on that the political risk for the government in pushing this issue could be huge.'
Marshall points out the impact that the pledge could have on the funding needed for airport developments to go ahead. 'Take Stansted, where a vast amount of private money is needed for the proposed expansion,' he says. 'If any high street bank, for example, should consider backing this project I would like to be able to go to them and suggest that the scale of opposition, illustrated by the number of pledge signatories, creates a high level of risk for the bank, making airport expansion a very poor investment.'
Opponents to airport expansion have already scored one significant victory, for The Future of Air Transport is the first white paper ever to face a judicial review. Campaigners have been given permission to present evidence to the High Court that the document was fundamentally flawed and reached conclusions that were irrational and inconsistent with the government's own policies and with the consultation ground rules. Such inconsistencies have been clearly spelled out by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. The committee's March 2004 aviation report concluded: 'If aviation emissions increase on the scale predicted by the Department for Transport, the UK's 60 per cent carbon emission reduction target, which the government set last year, will become meaningless and unachievable.'
Pledge campaigners point to the many different aviation strategies that could be pursued, from developing a high-quality rail system in the UK and eliminating the need for internal flights, to ending the massive tax breaks currently enjoyed by the aviation industry. 'The action needed to cut back on carbon emissions that accelerate climate change is completely within our reach,' says Marshall. 'In the case of the pledge and the campaign to oppose aviation expansion, the key to being effective lies in the numbers. It all comes down to individuals making that personal commitment and signing the pledge.'