All this fuss for a strip of tarmac? The government’s go-ahead for Heathrow Airport’s third runway is ultimately a local South East issue, so why does it need so much national airtime?
This was how one caller to BBC Radio 4’s ‘You And Yours’ programme last weekend saw it. And, indeed, the majority of the hour-long programme was taken up discussing such issues: noise, air quality, increased traffic on the already clogged M25. All important issues, but undoubtedly local ones. The problem with keeping the conversation local is that Heathrow will have consequences for all of us.
The decision to expand shines a light on two crucial contradictions of government policy. Firstly, how can a government committed, at least in theory, to reducing carbon emissions in line with last year’s Paris agreement simultaneously expand aviation? And secondly, in the shadow of yet another expensive, London-centric infrastructure project, what happened to the ‘Northern Powerhouse’?
The 2015 Paris Agreement commits all countries, albeit voluntarily, to move their economies away from fossil fuels in the hope of limiting global warming to the ‘safe’ level of 1.5C. Aviation is responsible for approximately 6% of the UK’s carbon emissions. This might not sound link much compared to, say, the 25% contributed by road transport. But whilst a future of zero-emissions cars is genuinely in sight (and at any rate can be alleviated by improved public transport), the same cannot be said for aircraft. Yes, jets are becoming ever more efficient, but are likely to be reliant on carbon-emitting kerosene fuel for the foreseeable future.
Even this might not matter so much in itself; according to the Committee on Climate Change, aviation emissions have actually fallen slightly in the UK, year on year, since the financial crisis. But the government sees encouraging aviation as crucial to business growth: the Heathrow decision makes this clear. The Tories may give lip service to taking climate change seriously, and signed up to Paris along with everyone else. But Heathrow flies in the face of all that (no pun intended).
‘Climate change means there can be no airport expansion at Heathrow – or anywhere’ responded George Monbiot, typically uncompromisingly. I’m not a particular fan of Monbiot’s pious, sanctimonious style, but he’s right. Other sectors have paths towards decarbonisation; aviation doesn’t. Acceptance of man-made climate change may have reached the political mainstream, but de-growth certainly hasn’t. The determination to expand aviation might contradict what the ‘green’ Cameron government said, but is entirely concurrent with the actions of a Prime Minister that shut down the Department for Climate Change immediately upon taking office.
Alternatively, however, let’s suppose that Theresa May genuinely does want to meet her Paris commitments. This means that she appreciates the ongoing, and possibly rising, contribution of aviation emissions to the UK’s total. This means one of two things. The first explanation if that other sectors – and other people – will have to compensate for the aviation sector’s emissions, by reducing emissions elsewhere. This means higher costs in other areas, which – as Monbiot explains – is unfair.
Essentially, by letting aviation off the hook to continue emitting, the rest of us will be paying for the holidays of the rich. Unlike Monbiot, I don’t begrudge the foreign holiday taken every year or two by the average traveller. But, like him, I recognise that the vast majority of frequent flyers are, in fact, the rich: 75% of all international flights are taken by just 15% of the population.
The other scenario is that Theresa May is well aware that aviation will have to be curtailed if we have any hope of meeting our Paris commitments. This explanation has Cameron and Osbourne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ squarely in its crosshairs. This answers the question of ‘why don’t we just expand Northern airports, as well as Heathrow?’ with the blunt answer of ‘we can’t’. Punitive taxes will eventually have to be applied to air fares; regional airports will decline. Instead of a way of expanding national airport capacity, it may be, as John Sauven speculates, an exercise in moving it. Away from the written-off North and towards the South East.
If this sounds a bit far-fetched, it’s worth pointing out that John Sauven is the Director of Greenpeace. He’s not an advocate for or against Tory policy, or for the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – his only stake in this game is a belief that climate change needs drastic action.
It is also possible that the government isn’t really bothered about the contradictions, or the implications of navigating them, outlined above. Perhaps it’s just another symptom of a short-termist outlook. The government is trying to please as many people as it can at this specific moment, whilst prostrating itself at the feet of the international business community to make clear that Britain is ‘open for business’ in the face of Brexit and hoping they’ll notice. I highly suspect that this is the most likely explanation.
Getting back to Heathrow, the conversation we’ve had about it has been widespread, and yet stubbornly local. The ‘You and Yours’ programme, despite a few nods to wider issues, absolutely treated it as a local concern. As with many projects, the ‘nimbys verses progress’ dichotomy often serves primarily to obscure the bigger picture and other narratives. Similarly, the ridiculous advertising spat between Heathrow and rival Gatwick over who gets to expand served to make it into an either/or question. Why not both? Or, more importantly, neither?
Personally, I’m undecided as to whether expanding Heathrow was the right decision or not. I fly sometimes, and it would be hypocritical to argue that people shouldn’t. The affordability of overseas travel to the wider population is a positive thing. But aviation certainly needs to be limited to help prevent catastrophic climate change. The priority for the Left should be to ensure that this happens, but that it is done fairly. Rather than simply taxing flying so heavily that it reverts to a luxury for the very rich, I would support a rationing system: one return flight per year per person, for example. This would be politically tricky, but no more so that the heavy tax route. Emissions need to come down, certainly – but the poor shouldn’t have to pay for the mobility of the rich.