stop aviation growth

Wealthy frequent flyers are the real problem when it comes to aviation growth – and it's time we did something about it

Uprooted communities, spiralling greenhouse gas emissions and a revolving door between industry and government. Radical protest in recent years has been a vital means of highlighting these darker sides of aviation, so rarely mentioned in public debate, argues Richard Collett-White. [A French version of this article was published on Reporterre:]

Catching a flight – is there anything that so powerfully represents the seemingly effortless mobility offered to us by super-charged economic development, or the apparent limitlessness of human ingenuity? Anything more scientifically staggering than the giant metal birds which soar above the clouds?

Unfortunately, this airbrushed image of flying, featured in glossy industry magazines, is exactly that – a facade which conceals some very uncomfortable realities that airport owners would prefer you not to think about.

In addition to the localised noise and air pollution impacts, well known to anyone living near an airport, flying takes a heavy toll on the climate. It is now the fastest-growing cause of climate change, and here
in the UK, where we fly more per capita than anywhere else, the industry accounts for 6% of emissions (with a warming impact of double that if you include non-CO2 effects at altitude).

According to the UK's own Department for Transport, if passenger numbers are allowed to increase at current rates, they will almost double by 2050. Globally, we're set to hit that mark by 2035. With growth of this kind, making emissions reduction targets impossible to meet, you might assume moves were being made to do something about it.

Yet while every other sector of the economy is rightly being expected to become greener (albeit not fast enough), and reduce emissions in absolute terms, the aviation industry seems to slip through the net
every time. Not only are there no targets for aviation in the UK's Climate Change Act, aviation (along with shipping) was conspicuously absent from the final version of the global Paris Climate Accord. And last October, all the UN body entrusted with regulating the industry could agree on was the dubious concept of 'carbon neutral growth by 2020': something that is only possible with the use of discredited offsetting schemes which deflect responsibility to other sectors of the economy. This 'light-touch' approach may be frustrating for climate campaigners but is hardly surprising when the industry and government are so close to one another, with staff often switching between the two during the course of their careers.

Does all of the above mean, then, that we are all equally responsible for getting us into this situation, and that families taking their one getaway break a year should be made to feel guilty about their actions? No. Flying trends, just as much as anything else, are shaped by the economic inequalities that define our societies. So in the UK, while more than half of the population doesn't even fly in a given year, and 33% take one or two flights, the remaining 15% are taking 70% of all the flights, most of which are leisure, not business. With average annual earnings of more than £115,000, it is these frequent flyers who mainly bear responsibility for the supposedly unstoppable demand. Contrast the wealth of these binge flyers with the poverty of those overwhelmingly suffering the effects of climate change – which studies suggest is already causing 150,000-400,000 deaths per year, particularly in sub-saharan Africa – and the global injustice of it becomes painfully clear.

At this point, it might be tempting to look optimistically to technology for a quick-fix solution. Certainly, the industry itself assures us that energy efficiency and biofuels will be enough to bring down emissions. But the evidence points the other way: passenger growth is outrunning efficiency improvements and there are no signs that biofuels could replace energy-dense kerosene (which powers jet planes – and happens to be exempt from taxation as a result of a 70-year old international treaty) to any significant degree. Add to that the fact that biofuels use up valuable land needed for agriculture and it should be obvious that techno-fixes alone are not going to cut it.

So it was in this context – of a high-polluting industry thirsty for growth finding itself in conflict with the unalterable facts of climate science, and the political world turning a blind eye to it – that Plane Stupid was set up 12 years ago. The group has taken direct action ever since, occupying runways, invading conferences and even (somehow) managing to drop a banner from the top of Parliament. It was part of the
opposition that helped to see off the many airport expansion plans pushed by Tony Blair's New Labour, and in the last two years has focused on Heathrow's plan for a new runway (revived yet again after numerous promises not to) which would increase flights by 50% and wipe out two whole villages. The scope of anti-aviation activism has also broadened, drawing links between different but connected issues, with groups occupying City Airport to highlight the racial inequalities inherent in climate change, and Stansted in order to stop a mass deportation flight heading to Nigeria and Ghana, carrying people who feared for their lives, often as a result of their sexuality, if they returned.

Plane Stupid has never called, though, for the aviation industry to simply be shut down, and supports moves in the right direction, like the frequent flyers tax popularised by A Free Ride, which would curb flying in a progressive way, leaving the lowest-earners (who are most likely to take only one or two flights per year) better off than at present.

Indeed, it is the bringing together of these different sides of the spectrum that makes the gathering in Toulouse this August so exciting: direct action activists, NGOs, academics and scientists, sharing knowledge and experience and discussing strategies for how to tackle this issue. Struggles from Mexico City, Austria, the UK and your own NDDL came together in solidarity last October in an international week of action and this meeting will be a valuable continuation of that process. The  struggle against aviation growth should be as global as the industry itself!