Britain’s ability to tackle climate change hangs in the balance. Tonight MPs vote on whether to expand Heathrow Airport, in a moment which will determine the government’s ability to hit climate targets for decades to come.
From an environmental campaigner’s point of view, this is potentially one of the most important votes that will go through the House of Commons this year. We know that any airport expansion will put a wrecking ball through the government’s CO2 emissions targets – without this expansion we are already expected to miss the target by at least 25 per cent. It will also drastically increase air pollution in one of the most polluted cities in Europe, threatening the health of the residents of west London. A vote in favour of expansion today will be willingly waving the white flag to catastrophic climate change. Without question, expansion would be an incredible betrayal of future generations.
Yet despite the environmental risks of this project, the debate taking place in the media is about the number of jobs this plan will generate. On the Victoria Derbyshire show, I was rebuked by the host with the question environmental campaigners are sick of hearing: “Why are you opposed to something that will create so many jobs?” I have yet to meet a climate change campaigner opposed to job creation, but that investment could create jobs elsewhere in places that there is greater public need, like our railways. Or a renewable energy revolution that would help tackle climate change instead of exacerbating it, and make us a world leader for the future. The government is offering a false trade-off: there are no jobs on a dead planet.
So why isn’t climate change the major factor in the Heathrow conversation that it ought to be? A huge part of the problem is that the anti-expansion side isn’t being led by environmentalists. Instead, the main voices are Tory MPs whose local constituents are, rightly, opposed because of disruption and the alarming levels of noise and air pollution forecast. Listening to Chelsea and Fulham MP Greg Hands explain he quit the cabinet to oppose Heathrow on Sky News, I was sad to hear his case boiled down to London being served enough already by multiple airports.
The devastating effect expansion will have on local residents is vitally important. But it should be matched by the threat posed to our planet. Recently we saw Environment Secretary Michael Gove attempt to greenwash the government – but the fact that Tories of all stripes support expanding the aviation industry suggests the new look is only skin deep.
Time is running out to tackle climate crises. We need to end airport expansion and radically reduce projected passenger growth, currently expected to rise by 60 per cent by 2050. Globally, flying benefits a privileged few. Even in the UK, just 15 per cent of the population take 70 per cent of flights.
Instead of investing money into flights, let’s put it into other forms of transport, like our railways; the best way to connect post-industrial parts of northern England and Wales to the rest of the country. Let’s put a frequent flyer levy in place so that the people who contribute the most to polluting our air contribute the most to finding a solution. Such steps will help seriously reduce the growth of regional airports. Not only will this create jobs around England and Wales and benefit the whole of the population rather than just the wealthiest, it will protect our climate for future generations.
Amelia Womack is the deputy leader of the Green Party.