The map which explains why Boris Johnson wants to close Heathrow

It must be political, because it certainly isn't economic.

If you want to know why Boris Johnson has announced a madcap plan to close Heathrow and relocate all its functions to a new airport, just take a look at this map:

The three proposed sites the Mayor has highlighted to take over the functions of Britain's biggest airport are Stansted, already the third biggest airport in the London area; a new airport on the Isle of Grain, in Kent; and a new airport on a new island somewhere in the outer Thames Estuary. Notice the common thread between all the proposals? None of them are in Boris' constituency.

Airports are, as a rule, unpopular in the local area. They are noisy, ugly, noisy, crowded, noisy, obstructive and really, really noisy (source: seven years in the Heathrow flightpath). They bring a lot of jobs to the area, which offsets part of the hatred, but fundamentally they are an example of the sort of tradeoff the state has to make: lives get a lot worse for a small number of people to make things a bit better for a lot of people. Someone has to live next to an airport, and, for the last 50 years, a lot of them have been in south west London.

So it's a very good move, politically, to move an airport from a place filled with people who can vote for you to a place filled with people who can't vote for you. If any of Johnson's proposals go ahead, there will be a lot of angry people from Essex or Kent. But none of those people can vote for Boris – while all of the people in the new aeroplane-free suburbs of London can (and given many of the seats there are Tory/Lib Dem marginals, probably will).

None of the marvellous political calculus involved changes the fact that shutting Heathrow would be a monumentally stupid idea. The entire transport infrastructure of south west London, and much of the transport infrastructure of the South East in general, is geared towards getting 70 million people to and from the airport every year. There are three tube stations, two rail connections, two motorways and a whole load of businesses built based on the idea that there will be an airport in Heathrow. Conversely, the Isle of Grain has one single carriageway and a goods line, and Boris Island doesn't actually exist yet. And that's not even getting into the fact that both the Kentish proposals call for using excess capacity on HS1 which would be put to better use bringing further EU trains through the Channel Tunnel, putting flight and rail connections in direct competition unnecessarily.

We've been calling for more transport infrastructure to be built for years now – but that doesn't mean we ought to junk what we have. If Boris wants to win round south west London to his cause, he's going to have to find a better way than this to do it.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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