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The Third Runway

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There are 415 British MPs who don’t take climate change seriously enough. That is the number who voted to build a third runway at Heathrow earlier this week; 119 of them were Labour.

The plans sailed through Parliament, despite some vocal but limited resistance. Only 119 MPs voted against it. Most of them weren’t worried that a third runway would make it near impossible to meet the government’s carbon reduction commitments. They were concerned that the plans were London-centric and might sideline transport projects in the north.

Government figures predict that the third runway will mean Heathrow’s CO2 emissions rise by 7.3 million tonnes a year by 2030 – more than Cyprus’s annual emissions. Aviation emissions have to be down to 2005 levels by 2050 if overall emissions are going to be cut by 80 per cent. Higher aviation emissions would place an unreasonable burden on other sectors. (Of more immediate, local concern, a vote for a new runway is a vote for increasing toxic air pollution.)

If the UK were serious about meeting its responsibilities on climate change, not only would we not be building another runway anywhere in the country, we would be taking steps to reduce the number of domestic flights that take off and land each day. But the government, despite teetering on the edge of collapse, was able to unite most of Parliament around the disastrous Heathrow plans.

You might expect nothing less from a Government that has overseen a fall in investment in clean energy over the past two years, and decided not to give any subsidies to the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon. But why did Labour MPs get this so wrong?

With an environmentally conscious left-winger as leader, the Labour Party’s official position was to oppose the runway. But a significant chunk of MPs, unhampered by a whip they would probably have rebelled against, along with most of the labour movement, were thinking more about the thousands of new jobs it would create than about the environment. Jobs matter; of course they do: food banks and rising in-work poverty figures are signs that something is deeply wrong with the economy. But those jobs, many of them temporary, won’t mean anything as the planet folds in on itself.

Climate change is a product of capitalism. The global economy is obsessed with growth. Multinational corporations move around the world, mining, fracking and drilling, uprooting local communities, selling fossil fuels and propelling the destruction of the planet. And it’s in this economy that airport owners are encouraged to expand, ‘regardless of whether it makes sense’ (that’s in the words of the Financial Times). For internationalism to be meaningful, people on the left who voted for the runway would have to be more concerned that the people who stand to suffer the most and the soonest from climate change are people in low-income countries that have contributed to it the least.

The environment is not an abstract thing that exists somewhere else, in a bubble removed from our day-to-day lives. We live in the environment; that’s what the word means. But this week British politicians showed complete disregard for it. Whether the runway is built or not (local councils and environmental groups are still opposing it), in British politics, as elsewhere, there is too much reckless, short-term thinking. It’s utterly shameful.

Comments

  1. Joe Morison says:

    Global warming concerns everybody, but more parochially there is the pollution that effects Londoners. The endless planes above us can only make our air worse, but it’s the huge amount of road traffic that Heathrow attracts which makes it a pollution hot spot (as the map linked to below shows). What has the most immediate effect on our quality of life, though, is the noise pollution: I live in Kilburn, 12 crow flying miles from Heathrow, and when a plane is overhead we have to raise our voices or pause the television – no other major city has such a big airport so close, it’s insanity. We all remember with great fondness the Eyjafjallajökull eruption; I went for a walk in Richmond Park, it was bliss.

    Air pollution map: http://www.londonair.org.uk/london/asp/annualmaps.asp

  2. Boursin says:

    “Climate change is a product of capitalism.” So is just about everything else in the contemporary world, including the London Review of Books.

    The blog post is otherwise excellent, but this one sentence has (to me) a “Carthago delenda est” feel that leaves a jarring aftertaste.

    • Joe Morison says:

      The connection is not quite the same: capitalism is both a necessary and a sufficient condition of our current global warming; and while it might be a necessary condition of the LRB, it’s certainly not a sufficient one.

    • Melinda says:

      Nick Stern famously said that climate change is the biggest market failure the world has known. Markets exist but have to be regulated. Start by removing fossil fuel subsidies. Both the Tories and Labour are irresponsible, out of date and too unintelligent to stop the environmental disaster that is happening before our eyes. The only politician talking sense is Caroline Lucas but journalists pay no attention to her because they are stuck in an irrelevant leftwing/rightwing mindset. Media commentary, including this article, is poorly informed and superficial. It educates and informs no-one. If you want to halt and then reverse climate change, everybody has to stop using fossil fuels. And – very unpopular point this – stop having children, Why should anybody be allowed to burden an already over-populated and dying earth with more people?

      • Coldish says:

        Melinda: I think you are being unrealistic to suppose that it is possible to ‘halt’ climate change, any more than King Knut could stop the tide coming in. Climate will willy-nilly go on changing with or without human influences, of which there are many, not just ‘greenhouse’ gases. Human activities do influence, and always have influenced, climate both locally and globally, and you are obviously right to suggest (or imply) that to get rid of that influence you have to get rid of people. But even with no humans on the earth climate would go on changing, sea level would go on rising (or falling, when we start to enter the next ice age) and so on.

        • pgillott says:

          Coldish, it seems to me that the scientific consensus is at odds with your take on this. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report on “the physical science basis” of climate change knowledge, published in 2013 (web reference given below), gives information about what’s understood of the effect of current and potential future human activity. (It reports on the science in terms of likelihood, based on “evaluations of underlying scientific understanding”.)

          In relation to our influence on recent climate change so far, there was a warming of 0.6-0.7 C from 1951 to 2010. The contribution of natural changes to this is understood to be small, and very unlikely to account for as large a part as that from humans. (More specifically, the effect of natural changes is said to be “likely” to have been somewhere between a cooling of 0.1 C and a warming by the same amount; and it is said to be “extremely likely” – 95-100% probability – that more than half of the change is anthropogenic.)

          The report also considers scenarios for “a range of 21st century climate policies” (none of which involves anything as drastic as getting rid of people), from a high level of mitigation to very high emissions. For the mitigation scenario, warming from the later 19th century to the end of the 21st is unlikely to exceed 2 C; for the high emissions scenario, it has a 50% chance of exceeding 4 C. Sea levels will carry on rising, as will temperatures, but what humanity does about its carbon emissions will decide how much.

          https://ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/

    • pgillott says:

      Climate change is, surely, primarily a product of industrialised society powered by fossil fuels. This is what capitalism (like communism as practised in the Soviet Union) has delivered, but is it all that it can deliver? Can the growth and profits it requires not be achieved by developing, for example, wind farms and solar panels?

      This presumably requires intervention in the markets that purists would object to (and which happens anyway, up to a point). As Melinda suggests (when not expressing disdain for most politicians, the mainstream media and – without apparently feeling the need to argue it much – this post), the right regulation is needed. With the Climate Change Act legislating for large cuts in carbon emissions by 2050, there’s at least some pressure to get this in place; how achievable those cuts will be with the efforts currently being made is open to question.

  3. nickww says:

    There’s something slightly unsettling about this. Not that I doubt climate change, but I’m not sure that guilt-tripping the public about flying overseas is a great tactic and this seems to be the underlying idea here. The great majority of the British people had rarely traveled overseas untl the last two generations, and I would argue that the cultural benefits from at leatst visiting and experiencing other cultures might be of huge importance in understanding the importance of global issues and respecting others. It’s easy to be sardonic about tourism and Brits overseas but I worry about a world where everyone is contrained to stay where they were put.

    Now the notion of expanding Heathrow is problematic for lots of other reasons, air and traffic pollution high among them, but that’s not the issue of this post.

    Nick W-W

  4. Graucho says:

    Well, as Joe points out, cars produce CO2 and any number of nasties especially when they are sitting in traffic jams. Ergo running more tube/rail lines into Heathrow and eliminating its car parks ought to be on the agenda 3rd runway notwithstanding. Adding the airport to the congestion zone might be an idea too.

  5. Peterson_the man with no name says:

    “For internationalism to be meaningful, people on the left who voted for the runway would have to be more concerned that the people who stand to suffer the most and the soonest from climate change are people in low-income countries that have contributed to it the least.”

    Yes, but being a leftist in the West nowadays is about defending the interests of the global middle class against the poor. Paul Mason recently admitted it with quite startling honesty:

    “Is this strategy designed to allow the populations of the developed world to capture more of the growth projected over the next 5-15 years, if necessary at the cost of China, India and Brazil having to find new ways to break out of the middle income trap? … For me the answer is yes. This is a programme to save democracy, democratic institutions and values in the developed world by reversing the 30-year policy of enriching the bottom 60% and the top 1% of the world’s population.”

    see: https://www.opendemocracy.net/neweconomics/kind-capitalism-possible-left-build/

  6. steve kay says:

    Unfortunately the Swansea Bay Lagoon is seen in many circles as having the environmental credibility of London’s Garden Bridge.

    Briefly, the electricity price projected was higher than any other form of generation, and intended to tie the consumer to a 90 year contract. There was no convincing assessment of the speed at which mud would fill up the lagoon. Some saw this as bad planning, some as a backdoor means of producing vast acreages of marshland which could in due course become available for building development.

    Tidal Lagoon director Mark Shorrock also happened to be a director of Shire Oak quarries, who planned to extract one and half million tons from Dean Super Quarry on the North Cornwall coast, to sell for use at a tidal lagoon!

    Widespread concern was expressed by environmental groups concerned with fish, birds and the effect of the savage quarrying.

    Private Eye regularly uncovered the role of developers and investors whose interest in ecology and the environment was minimal compared to their interest in attracting public money to finance a project that would continue to pay them for nearly a century.

    Lord Gnome and numerous web sites and blogs from Wales and the West Country can tell a great deal more than just a comment on LRB.

    • Coldish says:

      Minor correction: Dean Super Quarry is near Coverack on the south, not north, coast of Cornwall.


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