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Flying in the face of the climate emergency

Jefim Vogel, researcher at Leeds University, shows how declaring climate emergency is not compatible with airport expansion.

FlightFree UK
03 Dec 3 min read

“The world may finally be waking to the reality of the climate and ecological crisis,” writes Jefim Vogel and co. in The Conversation. “But while the UK Parliament has declared a climate and ecological emergency, ongoing plans for airport expansions suggest we’re flying full-speed towards crisis rather than away from it.” 

So what is the climate crisis, and what does it mean for our future? Global temperatures have been rising steadily since the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, and in the past couple of decades have increased dramatically. This is largely due to the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which in the last 100 years has shot up above and (far) beyond the range of “natural” levels during the past million years.

Everything we do produces carbon, and our lifestyles, here in the west especially, are very carbon-heavy. At current levels of emissions, we are on track to raise global temperature by between 3ºC and 4ºC, which doesn't sound like much, but it’s hotter than anything homo sapiens (or homo-anything for that matter) have ever experienced.

This would be a disaster for humanity. It would mess with the weather systems, resulting in an increase in heat waves, droughts, wildfires, flooding and storm surges. Entire sections of the Earth would become uninhabitable either because they would be too hot or underwater – a result of sea level rise caused by melting ice caps and glaciers and warming sea temperatures. These and other climate change impacts would cause huge problems for society: not just millions of people forced to leave their homes, but also food and water shortages, infections, spread of disease, undernutrition, an increase in mental health problems and an escalating risk of violent conflict and war as a result.

Tackling the climate emergency should therefore be a priority for every body of governance and power. It means a complete discontinuation of business-as-usual. There is very little room for, “Yes, but…” when every “but” must be weighed up against the very real threat to human civilisation.

But while councils are setting targets to reduce their carbon emissions, aviation is often not included.

For example, with Leeds, the city council has set targets for emissions not to exceed 42 megatonnes of CO2 between 2018 and 2050. At the same time, Leeds Bradford Airport (LBA) has plans to expand from 4m passengers to 7.1m by 2030 and 9m by 2050, plans that are supported by the council. 

By 2030, the climate impact of flights to and from LBA alone would be twice the target emissions for the whole of Leeds. Even if passenger numbers remained at their current levels, LBA flights would take up the entire carbon budget by 2050. The only scenario in which flying can be compatible with climate targets is if passenger numbers fall drastically. 

Airlines talk about carbon neutral growth and net zero emissions, but what does that actually mean? These targets rely heavily on offsetting, a solution that tries to buy our way out of the problem by funding measures to reduce emissions elsewhere instead of reducing our own emitting activities, when what needs to happen is absolutely both. And technological advances won’t make anything close to current (let alone increased) levels of flying in any way sustainable, either: the pace of technological progress, let alone the pace of new technologies penetrating the whole fleet of aircraft, is much too slow for reducing emissions at anything like the rate that is needed (and is currently totally outpaced by growing passenger numbers).

The climate emergency is simply not compatible with further expansion of airports or passenger numbers. The only way forward is to reduce passenger numbers significantly, and quickly, as well as demand that government and industry wake up to the reality of the climate crisis and aviation's role in it.

What can I do?

- Respond to airport consultation plans

- Join protest groups such as GALBA (action against Leeds Bradford Airport), No to Heathrow third runway, Stop Bristol Airport Expansion etc

- Stop flying, or drastically reduce your flights: if you’re going on holiday, why not go somewhere closer? Europe is full of beautiful and culturally rich places that can be reached by train.

- Campaign for a kerosene tax tied to a frequent flier levy

- Campaign for better and more affordable medium and long-distance trains and overnight trains, via regulations or subsidies

- Campaign for businesses and universities to pledge to reduce their flights and use video-conferences / video-calls instead

Map showing airport expansion plans across the UK. Produced by Ali Abbas of Manchester Friends of the Earth

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