Theresa May has announced that Britain will ratify the Paris Agreement before the end of this year. A welcome and necessary step in averting a local, national, and global climate crisis. However, with no indication the government intends to reject airport expansion proposals at Gatwick and Heathrow, ratification begins to look like empty symbolism. Either that or the Prime Minister simply doesn't understand the agreement on which she is about to put pen to paper.
The agreement, which is due to enter into force later this week when the EU joins the USA, India, China, and Brazil in ratifying the accord, was reached in December and pledges to limit average global temperature increases to well below 2C. The text also retains an 'ambition' to keep increases below 1.5C. In practical terms, to have any hope of meeting our commitments under the agreement, every sector of the UK will have to be re-focused to take a stake in the fight against climate catastrophe.
The signals across the board, are, unfortunately, troublesome; fast-tracking fracking and stripping away support for renewables is hindering the transition to a low-carbon energy industry. Despite this, it is the energy sector that is still showing the most promising signs of moving towards a cleaner future. The real failure of government climate policy is manifest in the transport sector. In fact, the most recent report on UK emissions demonstrated that far from decarbonising transport, the Conservatives are presiding over increasing emissions.
One of the largest contributors to transport emissions is the aviation industry. An industry exempt from binding CO2 limits and subject to no legally-binding fuel efficiency requirements. Aviation inhabits a regulatory world of its own, exempt from playing its part in mitigating climate change. As a top-ten global polluter, the industry emits more CO2 every year than the 129 countries with the lowest annual emissions. And, worryingly, emissions are expected to balloon by 300% - if no concerted action is taken sooner rather than later.
Countries committing to the Paris Agreement, therefore, require a credible plan for curbing aviation emissions, if they are to demonstrate any real intention of honouring the deal.
The UN body responsible for international civil aviation, ICAO, has been charged with creating a global market-based mechanism to offset the industry's growth in emissions. As Greens, we are demanding the agreement being drawn up in Montreal this week is robust and ambitious. However, it is looking increasingly likely that the proposals will not be sufficient to bring the industry in line with the demands of the Paris Agreement. The onus for action, therefore, must be shifted on to individual signatories.
While the British Prime Minister is making the right noises on the Paris deal, the ratification announcement is due within weeks of an expected Commons free vote determining whether the government should support runway building at either Heathrow or Gatwick. Theresa May can encourage airport expansion or make a genuine commitment to meeting the climate objectives set out in Paris. She cannot do both.
The case for airport expansion in the UK has a long and not particularly glorious history stretching back to the last Labour administration. Successive governments have kicked the politically sensitive issue into touch; Gordon Brown passed the buck to David Cameron; Cameron, as a parting gift, handed it off to Theresa May. The government and industry line is that expansion is the 'only solution to the UK's airport crisis'. But this is a myth. It has always been a myth. It is the multi-million-pound budgets of the airports and the pro-expansion lobby that are trying to convince us otherwise.
Heathrow airport, which last year made a whopping £223m in profit, has spent more than £1.7m advertising its case across the Transport for London network. Gatwick airport, which made a substantial £141m in profit in the year to March 2016, has, similarly, spent more than £1.6m making its case to London's commuters. Outside of spending that is subject to Freedom of Information requests, the costs of both campaigns are likely to exceed £7m - not including the cost of financing direct and indirect lobbying efforts. Who can forget the Heathrow-funded 'community group' set up to argue for the expansion of their paymaster's airport? The campaigns have failed to escape criticism, critics have accused the airports of attempting to exert unfair influence over public and political opinion. They have, however, succeeded in setting the narrative: the 'airport capacity crisis' is now received wisdom.
Britain is already amongst the most frequent flyers in the world, in fact, more passengers fly in and out of London than any other city in the world. Apart from Heathrow, however, every airport in the country is operating under capacity. The so-called 'crisis' is not one of capacity, but one of planning and management.
Nine of the ten most popular destinations from Heathrow involve short-haul flights. In fact, almost half of all flights in Europe are 300 miles or less. Existing rail services could offer genuinely workable alternatives on most of these routes. As trains are less polluting than planes, by a factor ten, this would help reduce aviation emissions, free up landing slots for longer haul flights, and provide a solution to Heathrow's capacity problems. A fairer transportation tax can help drive this transition.
The vast majority of the UK's airport capacity, 70% of flights, is used by a minority of frequent flyers, 15% of passengers. Many of these passengers are professionals travelling for work, but, owing to developments in flexible, remote, and digital working solutions, businesses should be able to cut the number of flights they ask their employees to take by 20%. The World Wild Fund for Nature is currently running a scheme to help organisations achieve this target within in just five years.
Moreover, the cases put by Gatwick and Heathrow, alongside relying on vastly inflated job creation predictions, hinge on a dubious assumption; demand for air travel will continue increasing. Industry experts, however, have been pessimistic in their forecasts following the EU referendum.
With a free vote looming, I'm asking MPs to consider not the false choice between Gatwick and Heathrow, but the kind of future we want to build for Britain.
Prioritising the needs of a small number of businesses over the needs of ordinary holidaymakers and listening to corporate lobbyists while ignoring the local communities set to suffer the immediate air and noise pollution impacts of expansion is hardly a step towards delivering a country that 'works for the many, not the privileged few'. Moreover, ratifying the Paris Agreement without any intention of honouring its commitments and, subsequently, failing to deliver a secure future for our children and our children's children is hardly working in the long-term interests of the British people.
I offer my solidarity to the campaigners, activists, and local residents participating in peaceful protests against expansion at both Gatwick and Heathrow airport. And I call on Theresa May to ensure that any free vote offered to MPs allows them the option to make the right choice for Britain and vote: no new runways.
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