WORKSHOP: CASE STUDY - The green counter to airport growth

Francois LeGoff

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Background: In July 2002, the Department for Transport published a consultation paper on the future expansion of UK airports, to address the anticipated growth in demand for air travel by 170 per cent by 2030. The document, which considered different expansion options, including a third runway at Heathrow, a new airport in north Kent and a second runway at Stansted, triggered fierce opposition among environmental charities and local groups.

Later that month, a group of charities and environmental campaigners, including Friends of the Earth UK, formed a coalition called AirportWatch to oppose the proposal, arguing that any future airport expansion in the UK was unnecessary and unsustainable.

The consultation process soon turned into a major battle between environmentalists and the air industry. In August 2002, airline companies collaborated with BAA, the UK's main airport operator, to launch 'Freedom to Fly', an initiative in favour of airport expansion, while Friends of the Earth UK launched its own campaign, 'Brace Yourself', alongside its activities in support of AirportWatch.

Aims: 'Brace Yourself' set out the environmental impact of airport expansion to the Government before it made its decision last summer. The charity promoted an alternative to new runways, such as curbing demand for air travel with higher fuel tax and landing charges.

How it worked: In a series of reports published during the consultation process, the charity argued that an increase in air transport would have a dramatic impact on climate change, making it very difficult for the Government to meet its carbon dioxide reduction targets. Using the Government's forecasts, the charity also stressed that expansion would expose tens of thousands of people to levels of nitrogen dioxide above mandatory EU limits, and more than 600,000 people to serious noise pollution.

From January to June 2003, supporters dressed up as flight stewards demonstrated in high streets using a mock-up airline check-in desk from which they distributed campaign postcards and posters.

Stories about the campaign featured in national and local media, highlighting the billions of pounds the airline industry receives each year in tax breaks and subsidies.

In July, the charity organised a demonstration at BAA's AGM, asking the board of directors to justify its past environmental claims. The company, which was now campaigning for a third runway at Heathrow, had in the past argued that an extra runway should not be built at the airport. Sporting suits and 'Pinocchio' noses, campaigners posed for the press outside BAA's premises.

In September, the charity and AirportWatch produced a leaflet The Plane Truth summarising their arguments against airport expansion, thousands of which were distributed at party conferences.

Results: On 16 December, and despite the Environment Minister's opposition to any plans for airport expansion, the Government gave the go-ahead to a third runway and a sixth terminal at Heathrow, provided that air and noise pollution could be overcome. Twenty airports across the UK are to get new runways, including Stansted, Edinburgh and Birmingham.

"The Government has sacrificed its environmental responsibilities to satisfy the demands of the aviation industry," says Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth. "The decision to massively expand aviation will not only be felt by people living near airports, it will impact on generations to come."

Richard Dyer, the charity's transport campaigner, adds: "We are disappointed, but this is by no means the end of the battle. We have made significant progress in getting the Government to include environmental safeguards in some of its proposals and have significantly raised awareness of this polluting and heavily-subsidised industry, but there is still much to do."

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