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The Flight of Reason in the Face of Airport Expansion

26/01/2016 09:48 | Updated 25 January 2017

If 1,300 flights a day take off from Heathrow airport and no one connects them to the recent flooding up north, does that mean they're not contributing to climate change?

This question is brought to you by the sort of logic we seem to be employing in Britain at present regarding the aviation industry. In 2011 this sector accounted for 6% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, and according to the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) Heathrow is the only UK airport located in an area known to have air pollution levels that are consistently above legal air quality limits. This, and other pollution issues including the fact that the Heathrow area was found to be in breach of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) standards, culminated with David Cameron's pre-election statement that there would be 'no ifs, no buts' on the matter of the third runway: it made no sense for the expansion to go ahead.

However, since then plans to expand Heathrow have flown beyond reason, and the recently-approved £17bn airport expansion means an additional 250,000 more flights a year, the demolition of 783 homes despite Britain's current housing crisis, and the destruction of most of the neighbouring village of Harmondsworth.

Enter Plane Stupid, a campaign group that employs direct action to fight airport expansion, and more specifically, the Heathrow 13 who chained themselves to the runway in July 2015, cancelling 22 flights and causing numerous delays. When they were arrested, a police officer told them: 'As a consequence of you being here, you are causing severe disruption and it will be in the millions of pounds.' Similarly, on Monday this week Judge Deborah Wright stated that the 'cost' of the disruption at the airport was 'absolutely astronomical'.

This raises an interesting point regarding cost and consequences that doesn't take into account the great looming elephant in the room that is climate change. There are no easily calculable figures to show the cost to our planet from the additional 250,000 flights a year or the health costs and consequences related to the increased pollution that the new runway will bring. Nor did Judge Wright mention the fact the London exceeded its 2016 pollution limit by the 8th day of this year, making our commitments to emissions reductions laughable, if increased global droughts and floodings were something we could laugh about.

The consequences, then, need a different measure for the scenario relating to the impact of increased pollution levels on human and animal health, and the warming of our planet. I'd say the word 'astronomical' was more fitting regarding this impact, since 2016 is already expected to be the warmest year on record, following in 2015's stead. It's difficult not to divert the discussion to vested interests - and others have speculated that the might of the aviation industry may be a factor at play regarding the reversed decision on the airport expansion - but cost and consequences should definitely be a prominent focus, as the result of this third runway is that of climate change: death and suffering the world over, and the failure of our governing bodies to do anything to prevent it.

Additionally, the consequence of this verdict spits on British freedom to effectively protest emissions increases, because Plane Stupid were tipping the scales in favour of reason when they locked on for the climate, and now that has been interpreted to be a bigger crime by the British justice system. In reality there is no bigger crime against our planet than climate change, and no greater injustice than the death and suffering it continues to bring.

In response to the original decision to go ahead with the runaway, Sarah Shoraka of Plane Stupid said: 'We need to insert climate change into the narrative, it's been absent from the whole debate ever since the report [approving the airport expansion] came out.' Plane Stupid's statement after the verdict states: 'Today's judgment demonstrates that the legal system does not yet recognise that climate defence is not an offence...Climate change has already claimed many lives, and it is the continued negligence of governance that forces citizens to act in their stead.'

The British legal system has it wrong here, and the aviation activists are in the right. We need to ensure that our governments enforce emissions limits, and that they prioritise health and planetary welfare over perceived profit. We need to stop prioritising foreign investors over local residents and global responsibilities, and to hold those who are driving emissions increases to account. Climate change should form a significant part of the dialogue when costs and consequences are assessed.

In addition to this, we need more people to take a stand against the bullying might of the industries that are trashing our only planet, and we need more voices to be heard in defence of our only home. Sending the Heathrow 13 to prison? That's just plain stupid. And it won't stop them either - as they said after the verdict, they're 'in it for the long haul.' In terms of the planet, so are we all.

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The Heathrow 13 face what they call 'an unusually harsh sentence' on 24th February, of a minimum of three months in prison each. Find them on Twitter @planestupid and on Facebook.

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