On Monday at 3:30 a.m., a group of environmental activists cut through a perimeter fence around London’s Heathrow Airport and chained themselves together on one of the airports two runways in protest of the construction of a third. One of the pro was dressed in a polar bear suit. Nine were arrested under suspicion of violating the Aviation Act, and the remaining four were taken to a safe area.
The undertaking, which delayed flights for hours and cost the world’s third largest airport millions of dollars, is the latest development this summer in an ongoing debate about how the U.K. can meet both airplane transportation demands and climate goals. At the center of the debate is a large new runway for Heathrow Airport, the main artery in a five-airport hub that makes London the busiest air traffic destination in the world, shuttling around some 135 million passengers a year. More than half of these, some 73.4 million, go through Heathrow.
According to the group Plane Stupid, which staged Monday’s act of civil disobedience, the U.K. cannot meet its climate target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 compared to 1990 and also build new runways. The group argues that ninety percent of Heathrow’s flights are “short-haul” to places like Manchester and Paris — locations where rail alternatives, a much more efficient form of transportation, already exist.
“We want to say sorry to anyone whose day we’ve ruined, and we’re not saying that everybody who wants to fly is a bad person,” Ella Gilbert, an activist from Plane Stupid, said in a statement. “It’s those who fly frequently and unnecessarily who are driving the need for expansion, and we cannot keep ignoring the terrifying consequences of flying like there’s no tomorrow.”
— Plane Stupid (@planestupid) July 13, 2015
A report released earlier this month by the Airports Commission, an independent body set up by the U.K. government to research the prospect of added airport capacity in London, reached a different conclusion by recommending a third runway be built at Heathrow. With local and global impacts in mind the report includes some caveats, such as a ban on night flights, caps on noise levels and air pollution, and legislation that rules out ever constructing a fourth runway. The government, led by Liberal prime minister David Cameron, must now decide whether to construct the runway.
Both the U.K.-based Guardian newspaper and London mayor Boris Johnson have come out vehemently against the third runway, which would add some 250,000 flights a year to the already bustling airport. On Monday, Johnson said he also disagrees with the protesters actions.
“There are ways of showing our disagreement,” Johnson said in a TV interview. “I disagree absolutely vehemently with the proposal to expand into a third runway. It is totally wrong and would be environmentally disastrous. However, I don’t believe in disrupting the travel arrangements of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”
The Guardian compared the notion of expanding the airport to its recent campaign for fossil fuel divestment.
“Existing fossil-fuel stocks are more than sufficient to unleash climate chaos; the same thing is true of the existing infrastructure,” stated an editorial early in July. “Transport networks need to be re-engineered for decarbonisation. But that would require some real blue-sky thinking, and of that there is no sign.”
Supporters of the airport expansion argue that the added capacity is necessary for economic reasons, including business competitiveness and job growth.
In a recent op-ed, Gareth Thomas, a Labour MP and candidate for mayor of London, wrote that “a third runway is in London’s interest” because it would create 40,000 jobs and provide a significant boost to London’s global status.
“The new mayor must use their power and influence to turn Heathrow into the world’s greenest airport,” wrote Thomas, saying it could be an opportunity to “accelerate the greening of the aviation world — with lower-emission aircraft given preference, further incentives to new passengers to use public transport and further investment in low-carbon vehicles on the airport and noise insulation.”
— Plane Stupid (@planestupid) July 13, 2015
The U.K. is not the only country grappling with these issues. In fact, aviation is growing much faster in developing countries across the world. Demand for aviation is expected to grow around 1 to 3 percent annually in the U.K over the next 35 years, while global growth rates are expected to be 4 to 5 percent. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, by 2050 the industry could contribute up to 15 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. In 2013, more than three billion people worldwide were airplane passengers. According to the Air Transport Action Group, aviation is responsible for 12 percent of all transportation emissions.
The U.S. is ostensibly starting to recognize the imminent increase in emissions. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes are a health hazard and should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. But the EPA won’t develop is own airplane emissions regulations — instead, it’s deferring to international deliberations on the issue by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, which is expected to release an emissions standard early in 2016.
In the U.K., the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which advises the government on meeting its climate targets, has said the greenhouse gas emissions from aviation should not take up more than a quarter of the U.K.’s carbon budget by 2050. According to the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), the Airport Commission has forecasted that aviation emissions will surpass this percentage of the total even if a new runway isn’t built at Heathrow. If the new runway is built, it will make meeting these benchmarks even harder.
“If aviation blows its budget, other sectors, such as agriculture, would have to shoulder tougher carbon cuts than the CCC considers to be feasible,” states the AEF.
One possible solution, runway or not, is a strict carbon tax on air travel. While international bodies are currently debating a moderate carbon tax to go into effect sometime in the next decade, for a tax to have a high enough impact it would have to add something like $125 to a one-way ticket from the U.K. to Europe, according to AEF. In today’s political climate, drastic action like this that would cut hard against perceived quality of life seems highly unlikely — especially when considered at a global scale.
“Our analysis shows that further reductions will be required and that emissions can only be reduced to a level compatible with the Climate Change Act if there is a significant increase in the cost of flying or restrictions on emissions, effectively a cap on traffic, at other U.K. airports,” Tim Johnson, director of AEF, told ThinkProgress. “Both solutions are politically challenging to deliver.”
As for the the Plane Stupid’s Heathrow protest, Johnson said it “highlights that climate change will be a key consideration in whether the runway goes ahead.”