'An Environmental Travesty': Heathrow Expansion OK'd Despite Vehement Resistance

London's Heathrow Airport, seen here, has won a controversial expansion said to be devastating to local residents as well as the country's climate commitments. (Photo: Hugh Llewelyn/cc/flickr)

'An Environmental Travesty': Heathrow Expansion OK'd Despite Vehement Resistance

Third runway will displace 4,000 residents, drive massive uptick in flights and carbon emissions

"Unforgivable," a "grotesque folly," an "environmental travesty" are just some of the ways critics are describing the decision on Tuesday by U.K. lawmakers to approve London's Heathrow Airport expansion despite fierce resistance from residents and environmental groups, who say the move prioritizes business above people and planet.

U.K. ministers have endorsed the recommendation of the Airports Commission to expand the international travel hub, which will include construction of a sixth terminal and an additional runway at a total estimated cost of PS17.6bn (or $21.3bn). "The nearby village of Harmondsworth will be demolished," the Guardianreports, while the expansion "would lead to almost 50 percent more planes over London, bringing new neighborhoods under the flightpath," while drastically increasing carbon emissions, as well as air and noise pollution.

Residents for years have protested the expansion, with some even locking their bodies on a Heathrow runway to call attention to its disastrous impact. On Tuesday, the grassroots campaign Plane Stupid erected a mock runway outside Parliament to signal their intent to continue fighting airport expansion.

"We can honour our commitments to tackle climate change, or we can build new runways--we can't do both," said demonstrator Stephanie Nicholls, with the anti-fossil fuel campaign Reclaim the Power. "Aviation expansion anywhere is irresponsible, and globally will impact the most on the people who've done least to cause the problem. Climate change is already hitting poorer communities in the global south, who are the least likely to ever set foot on a plane."

The final decision will be voted on by parliament in either 2017 or 2018, and the protesters have vowed to do all they can to thwart that vote. Meanwhile, the controversial approval has sparked some political fallout among conservative MPs.

On the ground, the expansion is expected to be "devastating for local residents," as Labour MP John McDonnell put it in a statement following the announcement. According to McDonnell, 4,000 homes now "face the prospect of either being demolished or rendered unlivable by air pollution and noise," which means that an estimated 8-10 thousand people will be forcibly removed from their homes.

"We have not seen anything on this scale in our country's history," McDonnell said.

"When the government won't follow its own rules," Nicholls continued, "it's time for normal people to step up and take action. Following today's announcement climate activists, council leaders, and local residents will be standing together to make any new runways undeliverable. If the government thinks they can override local opinion, climate science, and their own commitments they've got another thing coming."

"Let's just be clear about this," wrote Green Party co-chair Caroline Lucas in a Tuesday op-ed, "today's decision puts a wrecking ball through the UK's climate change commitments."

She continued:

Lifting people into in the air requires a lot of energy, and there's no prospect of that energy coming from low carbon sources anytime soon. That's why, unlike every other part of the economy, aviation isn't expected to reduce its emissions. [...]

Those of us who want to reduce the impact of flying cannot just wish away increased demand--instead we need practical proposals to keep aviation at levels that are compatible with fighting climate change, and which require no new runways.

Similarly, Greenpeace director John Sauven lambasted the decision, which he said had been erroneously focused on "privatized" interests--namely the false competition between Heathrow and rival Gatwick airport, which also wanted to expand--without "even touching on the main issue." Sauven wrote:

It's easy to miss something that's invisible, silent, odourless and tasteless. Particularly when you have a strong financial incentive to do so. And the entire aviation industry has a very strong financial incentive to ignore CO2. They've been successfully ignoring it for decades, and last month's UN-affiliated international aviation conference made it abundantly clear that it is content to continue with its current approach.

Unfortunately, there are no imminent technologies that, in the short to medium term, will make aviation a low-carbon industry. The only feasible way to significantly reduce aviation's impact on the climate is to significantly reduce aviation.

Outlining the alternative ways that Theresa May's government could be investing in infrastructure (home insulation, expanding the potential of electric cars, and building faster internet connections as well as more on-site renewable energy sites, among others), Andrew Pendleton, head of campaigns for Friends of the Earth UK, writes: "Instead, May's mackled-together cabinet is foisting fracking companies such as Cuadrilla on people in Lancashire and filling the belly of already bloated beasts like Heathrow."

"Permitting Heathrow expansion--hot on the heels of giving the green light to fracking--positions May and her government as climate wreckers," Pendleton continues. "But it also puts them firmly on the side of greedy, dirty businesses and against millions of ordinary people when they could be helping us all from political and tax-payer investment in infrastructure."

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