Monday, May 17, 2010

Flying Matters

David Howarth, University of Essex and Steven Griggs, De Montfort University, Leicester

Many of those who read this blog (we presume) will board a jetliner in the near future. Some will attend academic conferences, or visit friends and family. Others will commute to and from a place of work, or take a flight to spend a well-earned rest on holiday. Increasing numbers will be ‘leisure travellers’ heading for a weekend or short-break in a nearby city or holiday resort. How many of us will reflect on the environmental and social impacts of our actions in flying, and then act differently?

No doubt some of us will have agonised over the decision. We may have carbon offloaded our flight, or salved our conscience by finding solace in the limits of individual action to address climate change. We may even have worked through a complex set of mental calculations in which we determine that the flight would depart with or without us on board, and that for this particular journey there is no viable alternative to flying. (In recent weeks, we’ve also had to check that the cloud of volcanic gas from the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull is not preventing us from flying at all!) Anxieties about personal security have for many years been a growing threat at airports and for airlines. We might be tempted to swallow the latest ‘cake and eat it’ fantasy about the prospects of a ‘sustainable’ and ‘responsible’ form of aviation expansion.
Yet even those who agonize over the negative environmental impacts of air travel, or who abhor the endless queuing through security checks and customs, sooner or later find themselves buckling up their seat belts and putting up their trays ready for take-off. Such is the modern subject’s love affair with air travel - at least for those who are lucky enough to afford it.


Reducing carbon emissions from commercial aviation is a challenge facing governments across the world. Consider the case of the United Kingdom. Its Committee on Climate Change has predicted that aviation’s contribution to UK greenhouse gases will rise from the current level of 6% to 25% by 2050. If 6% does not sound much, then it’s worth noting that aircraft pollution emitted at high altitude causes up to 2.5 to 4 times as much pollution as those emitted from cars on the ground.
Yet in the face of this threat the position of the UK government is riddled with contradictions. Despite vocal opposition from local residents, high-profile celebrities, environmental groups, direct action movements, and even government agencies, opposition parties, and members of the Cabinet, the Brown government gave its support in 2009 to the construction of a Third Runway at Heathrow airport. This followed its own 2008 Climate Change Act which committed the UK government to an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.
Controversially, in December 2009 the Committee for Climate Change went as far as to suggest that a 60% growth in demand for air travel could be compatible with the Labour government’s commitment to keep CO2 emissions from commercial aviation in 2050 no higher than they were in 2005. This judgment was welcomed by some as a cap on New Labour’s ‘predict and provide’ ambitions to accommodate unlimited demand for aviation. But underlying the Committee’s assessment was acceptance of the aviation industry’s own ‘solution’ to the environmental impacts of flying: the ‘technological fix’. Indeed, the apparent mismatch between higher demand and lower emissions hangs on the reality of anticipated future fleet fuel efficiency, the use of alternative biofuels, and enhanced air traffic management, as well as other operational efficiencies.

A couple of weeks ago, these tensions were evident again in a high court ruling that declared that ministers should revise their rationale for the third runway as ‘it is now challenged by the government’s own global warming policies.’ (Guardian, 27 March 2010) The government met this judgment with repeated assertions of the need for a third runway to secure jobs and drive forward economic growth. Once again ministers have denied any contradiction between aviation expansion and measures to address climate change. Lord Adonis (the current Transport Secretary) said that ‘a new runway at Heathrow will help secure jobs and underpin economic growth … It is also entirely compatible with our carbon reduction target, as demonstrated by the recent report by the Committee on Climate Change.’ (Guardian, 27 March 2010)
A number of issues present themselves here. In the first place, the contradictory logic of aviation expansion is not external to the emergence of neoliberal forms of capital accumulation and governance in the UK, but a vital component of its reproduction and subjective grip. At the same time, global aviation is one of the major contributors to climate change, whilst the unregulated growth of airports and its transport needs, threatens local communities and their quality of life. The inevitable public consultations and deliberations initiated by governments and public authorities are rarely viewed as legitimate by those opposed to growth, whilst solemn promises by governments of all hues to curb the expansion of airports like Heathrow and Stansted are regularly broken.


In an important respect, the ecological maxim ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’ is tailor made to think about possible solutions to the problems of unsustainable aviation. To operationalize this idea, each of us has to think carefully before pressing ‘Confirm’ when booking our next flight. Are our journeys necessary? Are there realistic alternatives to flying? Can our purposes be achieved in different ways? At the very least, we should seek to offset the environmental impacts of our ‘binge flying’.
We can also work on forging connections between different struggles aiming to bring about more sustainable forms of aviation. In recent years, the dislocatory effects of aviation expansion have resulted in new assemblages on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, coalitions like Freedom to Fly and Flying Matters have linked airport companies, airlines and trade unions, air users, organized business and sections of the tourist industry around the rhetoric of ‘responsible’ and ‘sustainable growth’ in aviation. They have called on government to take a lead in increasing airport capacity, whilst continuing to support the aviation industry with tax subsidies.
But they have been opposed by groups like AirportWatch and the Aviation Environment Federation, which have elaborated a policy of demand management. They have called on governments to regulate the expansion of aviation in an effective fashion, whilst bringing together local airport protest groups with national environmental and conservation lobbies, such as the Council for the Protection of Rural England, Friends of the Earth, and Transport 2000. At times, they have gone beyond the ‘normal’ modes of campaigning and local protest by forging tactical links with more radical environmental activists and movements such as Plane Stupid and the Camp for Climate Change. Direct action has been threatened and used effectively. Their proposals for greater environmental regulation, coupled with the management of aviation growth, argue that unfettered airport growth across the United Kingdom is unnecessary. They have demanding the removal of the tax concessions and subsidies enjoyed by airlines and the need for more sustainable transport networks, such as high-speed rail links.
Finally, we need to think carefully about the role of government. Many radicals and progressives are wary of government and state interventions. Yet on an issue like aviation, governments of a progressive hue have an important part to play in constructing a clear line – an ecologically defensible balance between economic growth and environmental protection - and then seeking to lead, educate, and legislate. They must strike appropriate balances and then forcefully articulate the case for such proposals amongst key opinion-makers and the wider public. In the case of UK aviation, they should place an immediate moratorium on the expansion of airports, and tax aviation fuel at the same rate as road fuel. They should also introduce emissions charging for airplanes to encourage the use of cleaner technology, whilst promoting high-speed rail routes to reduce short-haul aviation. But governments and states can only go so far. It is the concerted efforts of responsible individuals, the forging of red-green coalitions in different sites, plus pressures for governmental action at the national, regional and global levels, which can tackle this pressing issue.


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