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In the aftermath of the suspension of air travel as a result of volcanic ash, the economic implications are likely to be considered for some time after everyone is safely home. Clearly, an abrupt, chaotic and unexpected disruption to life and work on this scale is highly costly to the economy and to society. But as we weigh up the costs of this event, we should take the opportunity for an open, broad-minded look at the true social value of large-scale air travel, and the trade-offs including risks, that we cannot avoid.
Too often, we are presented with the purely economic costs and benefits of an activity. These may tell us that it is cheaper to import our apples than grow them in Kent, or to spend the weekend in Turkey rather than Devon. But too little are the economic factors balanced alongside the social and environmental impacts, or ‘spill-over’ effects, which may be much harder to measure but are often just as important to our lives and to society. The biggest environmental cost of air travel is the intensity of its greenhouse gas emissions. We are just beginning to acknowledge that no longer can air travel emit these gases for free. If we have to pay for them, then higher fares will dampen demand and reduce the scale of the problem.
Wrapped up with air travel are important and complex issues around food security and support for overseas development. On the former, just taking the case of apples, for example, the current prospect of shortages in the shops highlights the loss of our own capacity to grow them as a result of purely commercial pressures. This is not about nostalgia. It’s about jobs, skills, well-being and the environment in the UK but also abroad. It may be that if we weigh the economic, environmental and social impacts of importing apples, it still makes sense to do so. The point is that unless we try to capture and weigh-up all the factors we cannot be sure if we are creating value for society or destroying it.
The same process of transparency needs to apply to sourcing produce from low-income countries, such as cut-flowers from Kenya. A comparison of the emissions costs of growing flowers in hothouses in Europe versus flying them in from Africa is one consideration. But there are complex development issues too, around the potential for securing higher incomes for farmers and other workers, at the same time as ensuring security of affordable food for local populations. A holistic analysis of material outcomes can help ensure that environmental and developmental objectives are heeded.
Quite topically, our latest report is the result of our 9-month independent study of the costs and benefits of adding a third runway to Heathrow airport. Contrary to the Department for Transport’s cost-benefit analysis a year ago, we found that if you include the key community impacts, such as extra noise, air pollution and traffic congestion, at a level that is commensurate with people’s lived experience of these disturbances, then a third runway will cost the UK far more than it will return to it in economic benefits.
Four years ago, Lord Stern cautioned government against locking into new carbon-intensive infrastructure like additional runways. We may learn from latest events that locking ourselves further into air dependency carries too high a risk economically as well as environmentally.
We live in bittersweet times. On the one hand, we face multiple challenges, crises and threats, from climate change, economic instability, growing social inequalities and resource depletion. On the other, we’ve got a real chance for change in the way we think about economics, the things we value and what really matters to us as societies and communities. It’s with this bewildering and complex dynamic in mind that I bring you Friday’s over-simplistic Good News, Bad News.
This week, the good news is:
- Carbon emissions have decreased by 3% from 2008 levels, because of the recession. This is the sharpest fall in emissions for 30 years, according to the International Energy Association.
- E.on will not be building a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, at least for now. While pressure from climate campaigners may have had a impact, the company cited the recession as being the main reason for shelving the plans.
- Income inequality is now coming under the political radar of the Conservative Party. The painstakingly thorough work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett of the Equality Trust has shown that countries with less inequality are generally stronger, safer and happier places to live. nef held fringe events on inequality, featuring Dr. Wilkinson, at all three party conferences.
The bad news:
- Peak oil is still likely to hit us within the next ten years, despite recent discoveries of new fields in the Gulf of Mexico, says a new report from the UK Energy Research Centre.
- British people say they wouldn’t give up their flights to help the climate. A study conducted by Loughborough University found that fewer than 20% of people said they were trying to reduce the number of flights they took.
- The Conservative Party are putting corporate lobbyists up for parliamentary seats. An investigation by the Times newspaper found that over a fifth of the Conservative Party prospective parliamentary candidates most likely to gain seats in the next election are or have been involved in corporate lobbying or public relations.
There’s a fantastic sketch in a recent episode of That Mitchell and Webb Look. It’s first-century Pompeii, and the city consul Robert Webb has called his most trusted soothsayer Quintillius, played by David Mitchell, to discuss the dark smokey clouds that are hovering over his city. Having established that the forecast is hardly rosy, the consul suggests making an offering to appease the angry gods.
“Exactly,” replies Quintillius, “I’ve been having a bit of a think about this, and I reckon I’ve got it. We sort out our rubbish into separate bins. Green glass, brown glass, mosaic, papyrus all in separate bins – a sort of devotional thing. Once a week before going to bed on a Monday night, I reckon.”
This “futile time-consuming ritual”, promises the soothsayer, will be all that is necessary to make the atmosphere return to normal. “You know gods,” he says, “They love all that shit.”
David Mitchell is fortunately more perceptive than his Quintillius alter-ego. In his Observer column yesterday, he pointed out the ridiculousness of Ed Miliband’s promise to “protect air travel for the masses” while also pledging to cut carbon emissions:
Otherwise, [Miliband] said, it would mean “you would go back to 1974 levels of flying”. Well, if he thinks that’s the worst the environmental future could hold, he hasn’t been doing his boxes. “I don’t want to have a situation where only rich people can afford to fly,” he continued. Who does? But then it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Whereas …
For us Brits, it seems, no environmental catastrophe is “half as terrifying as losing our easyJet privileges.”
Apparently we feel there’s no point keeping the planet habitable unless we’ve still got quick access to Disney World and Ibiza. This is bizarre and depressing. It makes me need a holiday. Are our existences so miserable that we’re only living for two weeks of escape?
Mitchell is absolutely right. It is completely baffling why we sacrifice a habitable planet for disappointing hotels, crowded beaches, jet lag and inevitable family arguments. But we also need to ask which Britons are doing the escaping. Are they, as Miliband seems to think, “the masses”? Or are what Mitchell calls “easyJet privileges” exactly that: a perogrative of one particular elite?
Research by nef and the World Development Movement, published last autumn, revealed that the “democratisation” of foreign travel by cheap air fares is a myth. Only 8 per cent of cheap flights are taken by people on low incomes, and yet those people make up 32 per cent of the UK population. It’s actually the richest people who use cheap flights the most. 40 per cent of cheap air fares are bought by people in socio-economic categories A and B, who make up only 24 per cent of the population. Sorry Ed, but protecting air travel doesn’t make you a crusader for the poor. It makes you the defender of stockbroker mini-breaks.
At the end of the sketch, Webb’s consul complains that Quintillius’ rubbish-sorting scheme amounts to little more than, well, “pissing in the wind.” Politicians, it seems, have lost a certain perspicacity in the last 1,947 years.
With motifs of climate-friendly transport woven into the fabric of the building, the Tricycle Cinema in north London was the ideal location to premiere Franny Armstrong’s new film, The Age of Stupid. One story in the film concerns the conflict between a wind energy entrepreneur and his rather self-satisfied and uptight posh local opponents who dislike the idea of any change to the landscape. The posh people win.
Afterwards, in the cinema bar, a slightly intense woman came up to me and asked, “Why don’t they make the wind turbines out of glass, then no one would be able to see them?”
Practicalities aside, her comment threw into relief the absurdity of a current impasse. We have a landscape that is already denuded and industrialised, flattened by monocultural farming and marked by pylons, motorways and mobile phone masts. But we are unwilling to restore to it the windmills that once proliferated, and could, today, help avert climate change and cleanly meet a significant share of our energy needs.
A few years ago, Allan Moore, chair of the British Wind Energy Association, pointed out that the opposition suffered by wind power was almost hysterically disproportionate and historically blind. He argued that in 17th-century Britain there were around 90,000 windmills. Now there were plans to build perhaps 4,000 bringing the total to 5,000.
Inverse proportions seem to be the order of the day. As the clock ticks down, it’s the environment that could bail out the economy if only politicians could order their priorities sensibly. Everyone from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the heir to the throne now understand this.
But, while the UK government were able to produce support to the financial sector equivalent to 20% of the nation’s GDP, new and additional spending for green measures in the Treasury’s pre-Budget report amounted to just 0.0083% of GDP.
The streets of London are filling with thousands of people calling on governments to link their responses to the global recession, climate change and poverty reduction. But, across a range of economic stimulus packages in countries around the world, the average share of spending going to green investments, according to HSBC, is just 15%.
So while the cries outside from industry, unions, the churches and environmentalists are for jobs, the climate and social justice, government is clinging to the illusion that, with the right support struts jammed into place, business as usual can continue. As no amount of rational argument holds sway, we’re reduced to cups of green custard, spiderman climbing buildings, clown armies and fantasies of transparent glass windmills, in order to achieve progress.
But, perhaps there is still more that we can learn from the economic collapse. The old banking system, with all its bravado, scams and subtle deceptions was held together, ultimately, by little more than aggressive self-belief. As soon as that went, it fell apart.
The notion that we cannot change, that we are bound to the status quo by what the poet William Blake called unbreakable “mind-forged manacles”, is similarly false, fragile and prone to sudden collapse. Rather than the politically popular fashion for “nudge” economics, however, we probably need to be given a good shove.
The “bystander effect” is a well-known psychological effect in which people are more likely to underestimate threats to the their safety in a group than on their own. In a group there is a kind of self-reinforcing inactivity if there is no initial response to a threat. Each assumes it must be ok to carry on, because everyone else is. That is why leadership is so important. To encourage fuel savings during the second world war government departments, public buildings and utilities all took high-profile measures to demonstrate that they were taking action.
Today, the head office of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (Decc) HQ is among the least energy-efficient buildings in Britain. Due to arcane rules governing access to information, the only way to discover each public building’s energy efficiency is by visiting each one.
Then, there’s the matter of the privatised research arm of the Ministry of Defence, Qinetiq. They have the consultancy contract to crunch numbers on greenhouse gas scenarios for the offical climate change committee that advises government over mandatory targets for emissions reduction. But Qinetiq is also a fully paid-up member of the lobby group pushing the expansion of UK aviation and a third runway at Heathrow – the organisation known as Flying Matters. Step forward whoever thought of awarding the procurement contract above.
“There’s nothing more demoralizing than a leader who can’t clearly articulate why we’re doing what we’re doing”
– James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge
With parliament set for a symbolically important opposition day debate on proposals for a third runway today, a question that I have been asking myself is ‘how will the Government’s decision to expand Heathrow airport impact on the public’s response to climate change?’ A colleague was asked a simple question by a cab driver that cuts to the heart of the issue that’s been troubling me: ‘How can Gordon Brown expect me to recycle when they’ve decided to build another bloody runway?’ I can imagine he is not the only person asking that question. If that’s the case, the Government’s decision on Heathrow spells disaster for the climate in whole range of ways.
Over the past four or five years, climate change has passed a critical threshold in public awareness and political discourse. But the growing profile of the issue has not translated into an adequate, proactive response. Research by AccountAbility and Consumers International found that while at least 90 per cent of the public believes that climate change is caused by humans, statistics from a survey of UK consumers showed that only 7 per cent felt they could do something about it. Of that 7 per cent, only 3 per cent tried to live sustainably. The evidence is that the increase in awareness of the seriousness of climate change and increased sophistication in the scientific understanding of future physical, social cultural and economic impacts has not been reflected in policy or public action. While there are many reasons for this, the key factors are diminishing trust in government and the fact that consumers are locked-in to unsustainable consumption patterns.
Defra has spent millions on research trying to understand what really motivates pro-environmental behaviour. And it turns out it is not as simple as just telling people about climate change. There are many factors that determine whether someone will change their behaviour or not. An extensive review carried out by Professor Tim Jackson in 2005, identified two key themes that determine behaviour change:
The first relates to the symbolic role of consumer goods, which goes beyond their functional use. The symbolic role facilitates a range of complex, deeply engrained ‘social conversations’ about status, identity, social cohesion, group norms and the pursuit of personal and cultural meaning. The second theme relates to the locking-in of consumers into unsustainable consumption patterns, which makes it difficult for consumers to make real choices about their consumption. Consumer ‘lock-in’ occurs in part through economic constraints (how much people have to spend), institutional barriers, inequalities in access, and restricted choice. But it also flows from habits, routines, social norms and expectations and dominant cultural values.
The research then goes on to suggest four key policy responses to combat these problems. One of which is leadership. For example, people assess the perceived priorities of government policy not only by what government says, but critically by what it does. The consistency or inconsistency of government actions can have a significant impact on the success of government initiatives designed to encourage people to take action that will reduce their environmental impact.
I am still doubtful that Heathrow’s third runway will ever be built. There are still a number of planning hoops that have to be jumped through and I doubt oil prices will stay as low as they are now for very long. It is worthing remembering that 24 airlines went bust when oil prices rose above $100 a barrel. But it is clear from Defra’s own research that the decision to press ahead with Heathrow has the potential to undo or at the very least stymie the public’s response to climate change. Whatever the outcome of the Commons vote today, it is clear that until the Government shows the vision and leadership to match the climate challenge they themselves admit we face, we are all less likely to change. And it shouldn’t take millions to work that out.
There’s a lot of Green New Deal news this week, so I’ll take it in stages. Today, the fall-out from the confirmation that Heathrow Airport will get a third runway. Tomorrow, I’ll say something about this afternoon’s inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Just before the announcement on Heathrow, the newspaper comment pages were overflowing with the pros and cons of expansion. The prospect of new jobs at the airport was enough for TUC leader Brendan Barber to support the new runway. Simon Jenkins was less convinced, pointing out that there are plenty of ways to create jobs – such as by improving healthcare infrastructure – which don’t involve flattening villages. Indeed, as Greenpeace’s Joss Garman points out, we need to get our jobs from a Green New Deal, not from more airports. He asks:
Should Britain be building a sustainable economy with a green fiscal package centred on creating millions of green-collar jobs? Or do we plough on with the industries of the past irrespective of their impact on disadvantaged people all around the world?
GND author and Green Party leader Caroline Lucas had a letter in the Times on the day after the decision came, arguing that, despite the double-talk of Brown and Hoon, there is simply ‘no such thing as a “green” airport‘. Like Garman, she attacked those who used economic arguments to justify the expansion:
It’s simply laughable to say that “the jobs outweigh the climate danger”. First, climate change will wreak havoc on the world’s economy. Second, the greening of our economy will require us to create huge numbers of jobs across many sectors, not least transport. Hence the need for a Green New Deal. It really is time to ditch the false ideology of environment versus economics.
The trouble is that what passes for ‘economics’ under this government is a mixture of vain hope and voodoo. As nef‘s Policy Director Andrew Simms explained to the Guardian,
You are talking about a highly carbon-intensive piece of infrastructure that might be finished at exactly the moment when global oil production is collapsing and its price is rocketing. The government’s case is based on fantasy economics.
We need to wake up to the fact that the expansion isn’t about jobs for ordinary people. It’s about big business getting it’s way, regardless of how the rest of us are affected. And, yes, I realise that any argument about corporate influence over politicians sounds trite to the point of being a cliché, but the reason it’s repeated so often is because it’s largely true. The news that there is a ‘revolving door’ between Downing Street, Whitehall and airport operator BAA, is shocking, infuriating, but hardly surprising.
What is surprising is the silver lining to this sordid collusion between BAA and New Labour: the Conservatives are green again! With impeccable timing, the Tories announced their plans for a green revolution just as our Heathrow rage had reached its zenith. Their plans? A £1 billion “super-grid” of high voltage direct current power cables, which will save enormous amounts of energy compared with today’s alternating current cables. They’re also promising grants of £6,500 per household to help people invest in insulation and energy efficiency measures. Good old George Monbiot, who first suggested many of these ideas in his book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, can hardly believe that they are finally being taken seriously, let alone by the Conservatives. And as Brown and Darling continue to mess around with more taxpayer-funded bank bail-outs, it is Cameron who seems more clued up about how a Green New Deal might actually work:
The stuff in [our proposal paper] will help employ people and bring jobs. We have got to do things that are both good for us now and good for the future.
If Cameron can convince us that he will make good on these promises, then he might catch a rising wave of enthusiasm for green economic recovery. Witness the following articles, all of which mention nef or the Green New Deal:
- Please, No 10, can we have a green policy? – Lord Chris Smith of the Environment Agency pleads Downing Street for a Green New Deal in the Sunday Times.
- Overnight, the US is going green – but we’re stuck in a different age – Geoffrey Lean wonders where our Green New Deal is in the Independent on Sunday.
- How can Labour still fear to act for a fairer, greener land? – Jenni Russell laments New Labour’s failure on economic policy in yesterday’s Guardian.
- Green light for a boom in jobs – a nice piece in the Sunday Times, featuring nef‘s Policy Director, Andrew Simms.
With a government decision expected any day now, the debate about the proposed third runway at Heathrow Airport is going right to the wire. As activists set up their picnic rugs in the Departures Lounge to protest the damage that the expansion would do to the local community, to quality of life in London and – most dramatically – to the world’s climate systems, the backlash from pro-expansionists has begun.
There are plenty of arguments voiced loudly across the press, so let’s just pick two of them. The first is the economic argument. Business leaders are currently urging ministers to approve the plans to expand Heathrow on the grounds that a new runway is vital if Britain wants to remain competitive, especially when the country is facing a recession if not depression. Businesses in London, they say, will suffer if the airport is improved and enlarged. The second argument is more of a class thing. It hasn’t escaped notice that the some of the anti-aviation protestors have university degrees from places like the University of Cambridge. This has prompted a glut of name-calling: activists from Plane Stupid and Greenpeace have been branded “middle-class militants“, “agitated bourgeois insiders“, the “bolshie Barbour brigade” and “upper crusties.” Because they’re posh – the argument goes – they don’t realise the impact that their demands will have on ordinary people who just want to take a holiday in the sun. According to Times columnist and spiked editor Mick Hume, the activists who blockaded Stansted Airport are “green meanies who pray that the recession makes us too poor to travel“.
Two recent nef reports address these arguments directly. In Plane Truths, a report nef produced with the World Development Movement in September last year, we examined the economic case for airport expansion. WDM has calculated that £10.4 billion was lost to the Exchequer in 2007 as the result of tax exemptions for the airline industry on things like fuel and VAT. To put this in perspective, this is double the amount of money needed to insulate the whole of Britain’s housing stock. It’s 120 times more than the amount of money which the government currently spends on the research and development of renewable energy technology. What’s more, the rise of cheap flights has benefitted the rich, not the poor. Plane Truths undermined the claim that budget airlines have democratised travel, making it easier for people with less money to fly more. Research at a London airport showed that in 2005, people from the highest soci0-economic groups took 40% of all low-cost flights, even though they make up only 24% of the population. People with the lowest incomes fly the least – only 7.7% of all low-cost flights are taken by people from these groups, even though they account for 32% of the population. Flying remains a perogative of economic elites, not an opportunity for the poor as is so often claimed.
And, as our latest report Tackling Climate Change, Reducing Poverty shows, it is the poorest people in the UK who will be worst affected by climate change. Because people on low-incomes tend to have poorer health and worse housing conditions, they are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as heatwaves and flooding which will lead to an increase in diseases and will damage houses. So taking action to stop climate change won’t punish the working class: if done correctly, it could act as a catalyst for new jobs and lead to improved housing and better public transport.
The class argument collapses even further when you consider just how much damage climate change will wreak on the livelihoods of people living in the developing world. If Mick Hume and others were genuinely concerned about the world’s working class, they’d understand that it’s the poorest people in the global south who will feel the brunt of climate change. For example, a 2006 study of 4,000 extreme weather events between 1980 and 2002, found that the poor, and rural people in poor countries suffered death, homelessness and displacement from climate-related disasters to orders of magnitude ranging from 10 to 100 times that of wealthier countries. nef‘s own analysis of the impact of climate change on developing nations can be found in our Up in Smoke reports.
Other pro-expansionists will claim that aviation will bring economic growth to developing nations, our research in Plane Truths found that most of the money spent by tourists in popular destinations such as the Maldives, Kenya and the Dominican Republic ends up in the pockets of multinational hotel chains and tour operators rather than to the local economy. As much as 75p from every pound.
We need a Green New Deal to revive the economy, not more transportation dependent on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. So as the arguments in favour of airport expansion crumble, and the threat of runaway climate change looms ever closer, we need to take urgent action to stop the expansion of Heathrow, of Stansted, of any other airport. Today, Greenpeace, along with impressionist Alasdair McGowen, actor Emma Thompson and former editor of the Ecologist Zac Goldsmith, have bought a field right in the middle of the proposed third runway site at Heathrow. There can only be four signatures on the deeds, and hence only four legal owners of the land, but thousands more can sign up as beneficiary owners. Greenpeace is offering you a stake in plot for free. Yesterday, 5,000 people signed up, including George Monbiot and John McDonnell MP. Adding your name takes 30 seconds. Win the battle, and we all stand to benefit.
October was a month that creaked and cracked. The insurance industry, already deeply implicated in the international financial crash, was battered by the fall-out from hurricanes Ike and Gustav. A bill in wreckage was left on their doorsteps estimated to be around $30bn (£18.2bn), far higher than predicted according to Lloyd’s of London. To show that God has a dark – you could call it “carbon black” – sense of humour, in the same month the oil giant BP’s quarterly profits of £6.4bn cracked another record high, representing a 148%, while Shell’s profits rose to £6.6bn.
The sky creaked in another way too. Relentless coverage of global warming, a deluge of green corporate claims, legislative flurries and a redesign of government departments should suggest progress on climate change. But the figures tell another, worrying tale. Far from going down, the global growth rate of carbon dioxide emissions is spiking upwards. Findings from the Global Carbon Project this month showed that the global average percentage rise since the year 2000 is now over three times higher than the previous decade, rising again significantly in the last year. These growth rates are now worse than the worse case scenario used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to model potential global warming. Levels of carbon in the energy mix for both rich and poor countries are also going up.
Government confusion here in Britain was captured by two stories reported literally side-by-side in the national press. In one, Ed Miliband, new minister at the shiny new Department for Energy and Climate Change, announced the government’s commitment to cutting emissions by 80% by 2050. In the other, the Evening Standard reported that “ministers are planning to water down EU pollution curbs in order to allow Heathrow airport to expand”. Attempts at satire prove redundant. And the heat on the government over Heathrow is rising.