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Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is a researcher on the climate and energy team at nef.

Is the sun setting on the case for expanding Heathrow?

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.

join_plot_logoWe 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.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.