What does the future hold for anti-flight activist groups?

“The benefits of the Heathrow expansion would be felt by the privileged few who fly, yet the price paid by people across the world.” Anna Hughes, Director of Flight Free UK, considers the impact of the latest Heathrow expansion on the future of anti-flight activist groups.

Anna Hughes

So Heathrow has been given the green light, again. It’s the latest development in a turbulent saga that has dominated conversations about aviation in the UK for more than a decade. 

The plans were first proposed in 2010, drawing high-profile opposition (including from Boris Johnson, who said that he would lie down in front of the bulldozers) at the same time as being supported by many who see expansion of the UK’s largest airport as the key to Britain’s success and status as an international power.

Communities sprang up in opposition, from the protest camp of Grow Heathrow, to local groups all over the South East whose lives would suffer as a result of the increase in noise and local air pollution, to residents of the villages that would be flattened to make way for the third runway.

But opposition is not just from those living under the flight path. Heathrow is already the UK’s largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, and with a third runway increasing flight emissions from the current 19 million tonnes per year to a peak of 25 million tonnes per year, expansion is simply not compatible with reaching our climate targets. Climate change is a global issue, already being worse felt by those around the world who have done least to cause it. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a question of social justice and climate justice. The benefits would be felt by the privileged few who fly, yet the price paid by people across the world.

There was hope in early 2020, when the Supreme Court ruled that a third runway at Heathrow airport would be unlawful because of the UK’s commitments to the Paris climate accord. Less than nine months later that ruling was overturned.

It seems incredible that our climate change commitments can so easily be dismissed. The IPCC recommends there is only room in our carbon budget for a 25 per cent increase in airport capacity across the board. The now-approved Heathrow runway will increase capacity at the airport by 50 per cent.  

So what does this mean for campaign groups such as Flight Free UK? 

In our work alongside groups such as the Aviation Environment Federation we will continue to raise awareness of the climate impact of aviation and encourage people to protest the expansion of airports across the UK. But we are primarily a behaviour change organisation. We ask individuals if they could take a year off flying to reduce emissions and shift the social narrative around aviation. 

We particularly push this message among those who oppose Heathrow expansion, because one way to influence whether expansion goes ahead or not, is to stop taking flights. Our individual actions are just as important as pushing for change at policy level – and indeed, they can influence them. Trends across Europe have shown that where consumers lead, industry follows. If we stop flying so much, the case for expansion falls apart.

The year 2020 gave us a picture of what life might be like if we flew less. Clear skies. Improved health and sleep for people living under flight paths. Lower emissions. Less air pollution. It was also an incredibly miserable year for many, so while it's understandable that people will be keen to get away after the year we’ve just had, our mission at Flight Free UK is to show that we can still fulfil our needs and desires without getting on a plane. Lockdown forced us all to get inventive with travel and discover some of the gems right here in the UK that we often overlook. And for that holiday in the sun, the shores of the Mediterranean are easily accessible by train, for a fraction of the emissions of flying.

Perhaps the pandemic has shown us that we didn’t need to fly as much as we thought we did. And the shockwaves that have gone through the aviation industry as a result of the pandemic might one day sound the death knell for Heathrow expansion. It never made sense on economic grounds, and makes even less sense now. And it certainly doesn’t make climate sense. The fight is not yet over.

Anna Hughes is director of Flight Free UK. To pledge to be flight free in 2021, visit the Flight Free website.