The most important protest of our time

Aviation is the incendiary issue in environmental politics today. The campaigners at Heathrow are ju

It's difficult to hear over the roar of planes - Heathrow is literally on the other side of the fence. In an hour or so a phalanx of black-clad policemen will invade the site, only to be driven away by a hurriedly assembled group of chanting protesters. But for now our minds are focused on global warming science. Using a solar-charged laptop and slides projected against the wind-buffeted side of a white marquee, I'm explaining to a packed audience of Climate Campers just how important it is that we stabilise global temperature rises below the danger line of 2° - and how the aviation industry stands in the way.

Probably the single most polluting thing you or I will ever do is step on to a plane. Take that tempting return flight to, say, Thailand, and you become immediately responsible for about six tonnes of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere - three times more than is likely to come from any other activity you do in the year, including driving and heating your house. This is why aviation is the most bitter and divisive issue in environmental politics today.

There is almost no consensus anywhere in this debate. Even my last paragraph will have caused annoyance for some: my six tonnes figure for the Thailand flight includes a 2.7x multiplier to account for the aggravating impact of greenhouse gases released by aircraft high into the atmosphere. However, citing scientific uncertainty, airlines choose to ignore this extra warming effect: if you use British Airways's carbon calculator to reassess my Thailand flight, it returns a figure of "only" 2.16 tonnes.

Not surprisingly, the industry downplays the impact of its activities. BAA's chief executive, Stephen Nelson, argues that aviation accounts for only 6 per cent of UK carbon emissions and 3 per cent of those globally. (These figures of course include no multiplier.) Aviation "should not be demonised, and we should not be cutting back on capacity at a time when people want to fly more", he insists. However, Nelson and his colleagues are less happy to voice a more inconvenient truth concerning aviation: that it is by far the fastest-growing source of greenhouse-gas emissions globally. This is the second reason why the aviation debate is so bitter, and why protesters are massing around the perimeter fence at Heathrow. If air travel goes on expanding, all carbon-reduction targets go out of the window. As the Tyndall Centre - the UK's best-known academic body specialising in climate research - reported in a 2006 study, aviation could account for 100 per cent of the UK's carbon allocation by 2050 in a climate stabilisation scenario. In other words, all other carbon-emitting sectors will need either to go zero-carbon or to shut up shop, merely to allow for the growth in air traffic.

Tyndall Centre scientists are adamant that "there is no chance for the climate without tackling aviation" - and that means stopping the expansion of airport infrastructure. This is again where BAA comes in. The company is currently lobbying for a second runway at Stansted and is close to completing Heathrow's Terminal 5. It also wants to see a third runway at Heathrow, and a sixth terminal to serve it, despite promising local residents many times that this would never happen. The company seems to have an umbilical relationship with the Department for Transport - everything it wants to see happen, the DfT wants, too. BAA executives return the compliment by brandishing the 2003 aviation white paper - which "projects" a doubling of passenger numbers by 2020 and supports new runways at Stansted and Heathrow - as a sort of substitute corporate mission statement.

Perhaps this closeness evolves from BAA's origins as a state asset. The British Airports Authority was privatised by Margaret Thatcher in 1986. Since being taken over by the Spanish construction giant Ferrovial in June last year, BAA (which also owns Southampton, Aber deen, Edinburgh and Glasgow airports and made £620m in profits last year) is no longer listed on the Stock Exchange and is accountable to no one other than the Ferrovial board.

BAA manages to combine the worst kind of crass commercialism with the hapless inefficiency of a government bureaucracy. Even the Economist complains about the preponderance given at "grotty" Heathrow to aggressive retailing, as opposed to getting people quickly and with minimum fuss on to planes. From an environmentalist perspective, this is all to the good: the more flying becomes an inconvenient and unpleasant experience, the less people will want to do it. There are already signs of this: Stagecoach reports that its 38 per cent rise in profits last year was assisted by domestic air travellers switching to the train due to environmental and convenience concerns.

Most people hope for an eventual technical fix to the emissions problem. Richard Branson has pledged billions for biofuels research, but even if technical hurdles - such as biofuels' propensity to freeze at high altitude - could be overcome, there isn't enough land out there to support the volumes of fuel required without either displacing large areas of food production or further destroying tropical forests. Nor does hydrogen offer much hope; it takes up more space than kerosene for the same amount of energy produced, and the water vapour emissions from burning hydrogen will still warm the climate. No one, not even airline PR people, claims that alternative fuels can be developed for at least another 30-50 years, much too late to help reduce climate change, which requires concerted action in the next decade.

You could offset, of course - but this is another thorny moral and political debate. Certainly it is true that offsetting does not reduce emissions - it simply allows them in one place while trying to mop up the damage somewhere else. However, I would argue that it is better to offset than not, particularly as most of the projects - from biofuel school stoves in India to rainforest restoration in Uganda - are worthy in and of themselves.

Environmentalists suggest that at the very least the aviation industry should pay as much tax on its fuel as everyone else. The Aviation Environment Federation has estimated that airlines pay just 18p per litre on fuel that would cost you and me 75p - helping net the industry as much as £9bn in hidden subsidies. But wouldn't taxing aircraft fuel, thereby raising the price of tickets, simply price poorer travellers out of the market? Not necessarily. Most of the boom in low-cost air travel has been soaked up by rich people travelling more often. Surveys show that most people in the lowest social groups do not fly at all.

A better way to make the industry pay its environmental way would be to bring it into the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. In principle, this would force airlines to buy enough credits to cover their activities within the context of an overall economy-wide emissions reduction. But the principle and practice are somewhat different. Governments are allowed to set their own national carbon caps each year. Airlines know their political power, which is probably why most say they are happy to participate in the EU ETS: if the squeeze got too tight, they could simply pick up the phone to the aviation minister.

Arrogant stance

The industry has grown too powerful for its own good. BAA certainly overplayed its hand in asking for an injunction against climate-change protesters that would potentially have covered five million people. In taking such an arrogant stance, BAA has helped drive together an unusual alliance against it: from local communities, to direct action protesters, to the widening number of ordinary people who recognise the threat aviation poses to our future. It is a movement that is growing rapidly in confidence and in numbers.

Like the police, BAA constantly invokes the terrorism threat as an excuse to stamp out pro test, crying wolf in a political argument it knows it is losing. Campaigners against Stansted expansion recently introduced a witness from Greenland at the public inquiry: Aqqaluk Lynge, an Inuit human rights leader, gave eloquent testimony about what is really at stake. "You may say that the expansion of London Stansted Airport will play only a small part in increasing climate change, but everyone can say that about almost everything they do. It is an excuse for doing nothing," Lynge argued. "The serious consequences affecting my people today will affect your people tomorrow."

As if on cue, scientists revealed on 9 August that the Arctic sea ice had reached its lowest level in recorded history. With a further month of melt left to go, the experts expect that the previous record - set in 2005 - will be "annihilated". Don't expect to read about this in a BAA press release or government white paper. But do expect to hear a lot more about it from campaigners like those at the Climate Camp, who are making the most important protest of our time. The stepping up of direct-action protests on global warming has come not a moment too soon.

Mark Lynas is author of "Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet" (Fourth Estate, £12.99)

Voices from the climate camp

I have lived in the little borough of Hillingdon all my life. If the expansion goes ahead my whole family history will be under concrete
Linda McCutcheon (61), secretary of the No Third Runway Action Group

If we don’t target airport expansion then all other efforts to confront climate change will be a waste of time
Graham Thompson (33), Plane Stupid activist

I’ve been encouraging as many people as possible to go to the Camp for Climate Action: it’s an opportunity to learn about what’s at stake. The airport expansion would ruin the lives of local people
Michael Cox (49), Liberal Democrat councillor for the London Borough of Hillingdon

I’m involved with climate change through my work, but I’ve also seen the injustice in the way people in Heathrow’s flight path have been treated
Peter Lockley (27), running workshops for the Aviation Environment Federation

Climate change is the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced. If we want to be a world leader in tackling it, we have to start at home
James Turner (27), full-time Greenpeace activist

Interviews by Ben Quinn

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time