Wednesday, 25 July 2012

No Plane, No Gain? (2012)

Imogen Michel, ‘No plane, no gain?’, The Student (Edinburgh), 3 April 2012

Terminal 5 flash mob at Heathrow Airport, 27 March 2008. Photo credit: Greenpeace

 As someone who has been involved as a volunteer with several environmental campaigning organisations over the last few years, and as someone who had grown up in London, I joined with many of my friends in breathing a huge sigh of relief when the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government announced it was scrapping plans for a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport back in 2010. An idea which was fundamentally ridiculous on so many levels, it seemed as though the politicians had seen sense for once, and we could move on to campaign on other issues.

The campaign against the third runway had united local residents in the towns of Sipson and Harmondsworth who faced the destruction of their homes and communities by the planned runway with seasoned campaigners and politicians across the political spectrum. It had encompassed a wide range of different tactics, from the purchase of an area of land on the site of the planned runway which was then distributed to thousands of beneficial owners in an attempt to put up legal obstacles to a third runway, through to the construction of a squatted community garden designed to build resilience to the expansion plans, which is still in existence today. It was creative, it had mass support, and in the end it was effective.

However, this week it has been suggested that leading Conservative politicians are considering doing a U-turn over the decision to not go ahead with a third runway. Whilst it is impossible to say exactly what plans may be being considered in secret for this, it is important to remember why so much opposition was raised to the idea of a third runway in the first place, and why enough support was given to the campaign for it to be scrapped completely just two years ago.

The justification given so far for bringing the third runway back onto the table has mainly been for economic reasons; it is argued that to keep up with other nations, we need to expand the capacity of the south-east of England as an aviation hub. Sometimes it seems that the economic crisis is rolled out as a reason for any unpopular decision that the coalition government wants to make, much as a fear of terrorism was used by New Labour to bring out sweeping curtailments of human rights and civil liberties over the previous decade.

The idea that a third runway at Heathrow would benefit the economy is not a universally accepted position among economists, or even within the aviation industry itself. British Airways former Chief Executive Bob Ayling has written in the Sunday Times that ‘[a] third runway at Heathrow is against Britain's economic interests’, whilst the Economist magazine and respected economic agency CE Delft have both come out against a third runway.

In addition to this, ever since the Stern report was released in 2006, it has been absolutely clear that the economic costs of trying to adapt to and recover from man-made climate change will vastly outstrip the costs of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions now. Rather than investing more money into the most environmentally destructive mode of transport available, we should be looking at improving the alternatives to ensure our long-term interests. Aviation is the fastest-growing cause of climate change, and to expand Heathrow now would massively undermine efforts to curb global warming before it is too late.

Although I no longer live in the south-east of England myself, I will, along with many other activist friends, be ready to take up the fight again should the Tories decide they do want to do a U-turn over the planned third runway at Heathrow. We don’t want it, Britain doesn’t need it, and the environmental damage it would cause is simply unacceptable.

Imogen Michel is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh researching oral histories of peace and environmental activists in the UK. She has been involved in various campaigning organisations, including Greenpeace and Plane Stupid, since 2006, and has been significantly involved in anti-aviation campaigning during that time.

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