Today is the 30th birthday of the opening of London City Airport – but there isn’t much to celebrate. Since the airport’s opening in 1987, carbon dioxide levels have increased from 351 parts per million (ppm), around a ‘safe’ level in terms of climate change, to a dangerously high 409 ppm this year.
Politically, discussions around sustainability and climate change were just getting started then, and there was hope that world leaders might find a solution for us. This was 5 years before the landmark 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Now, two years on from the 2015 Paris climate agreement – an agreement that on the surface sets an ambitious target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees – there is little sign of action from any government. Top NASA scientist James Hansen described it as ‘worthless words’ with ‘no action’.
While officials prevaricate, we are increasingly seeing the devastating effects of climate change in more frequent extreme weather events: think of Hurricane Irma which hit the Caribbean last month, or the extreme flooding in Bangladesh, which left a third of the country under water.
But a lot of other things have changed since 1987. Firstly, we’ve learned as people and as a movement that although these numbers matter – parts per million and degrees centigrade – that’s not what climate change is actually about. Very recently, thanks largely to the action at London City Airport by BLMUK, the narrative that the ‘climate crisis is a racist crisis’ has been thrust into the mainstream.
Although extreme weather events are increasing, it’s important to examine who is being affected and who is causing it. London City Airport was a perfect target to highlight this argument. The UK has emitted the most CO2 cumulatively per capita since the industrial revolution, has built its wealth on colonialism and now is one of the centres of global capitalism that continues to extract resources and wealth from countries in the global South. All of this while globally 7 out of 10 of the countries most affected by climate change are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Locally, City Airport primarily serves wealthy CEOs and executives from ‘The City’, with the average passenger salary £92,000, while 40 per cent of the majority working class BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) population in the surrounding borough of Newham, who are forced to breathe in the air pollution from the airport, live on just £20,000. Climate change is more than an ‘environmental’ issue – it’s also about race, class, gender and colonial responsibility.
We can also celebrate the fact that while the majority of politicians are failing to find any solutions, we’re not going to sit back and do nothing. The protest movement against airport expansion is strong and willing to take direct action to make sure that there will be no more new runways.
In the past few years alone there have been actions at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, and London City Airport carried out by BLMUK, Plane Stupid, Rising Up, Reclaim the Power, Greenpeace, The Future, The Green Party, Residents Against Runways and many others. What’s more, these actions have not been carried out by ‘professional protesters’ – they have been carried out by people who work in the area, who have friendships with local people or have lived in the area for decades.
Finally, we can celebrate that the 30th birthday of London City Airport reminds us that there hasn’t always been an airport here and there won’t always be one either. We often look at massive pieces of infrastructure like airports and think that they’ve been there forever and that they always will be, but that’s not the case.
With London City Airport in such a prime location, the New Economics Foundation and HACAN East laid out plans for how the site could, instead of a prime example of social inequality and a driver climate change, be a beacon of sustainable urban design, inspiring change across the capital and beyond when the airport is closed down.
If we only allow ourselves to imagine beyond the current situation, so much more is possible than we think. Who would have thought that, for example, that the Labour Party could go from being led by neoliberals who start wars for oil in the Middle East to being led by a staunch anti-imperialist like Jeremy Corbyn in a few short years? Or that after decades of feeling invisible, after just 10 months of campaigning the LSE cleaners are to be brought in-house, vastly improving their situation?
We can also celebrate that for as long as there have been plans for an airport there has been resistance – with the Greater London Council attempting to block the airport’s construction in the High Court in 1985 and local groups, like Fight the Flights in Newham, who have organised in opposition to airport expansion. We can celebrate the combination of resistance and alternative visions are what create futures we all benefit from. So here’s to 30 years of resistance, and a future without London City (or any) airport!
Ali Tamlit is a member of Plane Stupid and End Deportations. He was part of an action in March that stopped a deportation charter flight to Nigeria and Ghana, and is on trial alongside 14 others in March 2018.