Opinion | Extinction Rebellion and Bristol Airport: the unseen costs of climate action


Benny Peeler, Third Year, Philosophy and Politics

Extinction Rebellion’s latest protest against the Bristol Airport expansion highlights a wider fundamental issue facing the climate action movement that remains unsolved.

Hundreds of Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists descended on Weston-Super-Mare to mark the start of a 10 week long public inquiry into North Somerset Council’s decision to reject the proposed airport expansion.

But are these so-called ‘rebels’ able to provide a plausible alternative to the economic benefits a new runway could bring to the local area?

It’s not hard to understand where XR’s enthusiastic and albeit wacky activists are coming from. We are facing an impending climate catastrophe with impacts so devastating that even the most optimistic among us can’t help but squirm a little.

The latest data indicates that aviation accounts for 2.4 per cent of global emissions, and together with other polluting gases, such as water vapour trails left in the atmosphere, the industry as a whole is estimated to be responsible for over five per cent of global warming.

It is far too easy to take the moral high ground when you know where your next meal is coming from

Surely, if the UK has any hope of complying with the Paris Agreement’s target of carbon net zero by 2050, the very last thing we need is even more planes in the sky.

The trouble is, despite the airport’s ridiculous claims of net neutrality by as early as 2030 (they seem to have forgotten to account for the emissions of the actual planes themselves), the airport’s lawyers have also made some more reasonable and thought provoking arguments.

Michael Humphries QC stated that "To artificially restrict the ability of individuals to fly by deliberately constraining capacity as some have suggested would have profound implications in a free society".

I have taken these "Profound implications" that Mr. Humphries describes to mean the loss of the potential 82,500 additional jobs predicted to be created if the expansion plans are given the green light.

This kind of economic boost to the local area is not something to be sniffed at without careful consideration. Particularly when JSNA 2020/21 health and wellbeing profile found that 15 per cent of Bristol’s population live in the most deprived 10 per cent of areas in the whole of England.

It will be the poorest in society who will feel the brunt of this change the most

Large scale investment like this has a real possibility of significantly combatting these worrying statistics in a tangible way. To me, here lies the intrinsic dilemma facing almost all climate action.

To put it simply, it is always far too easy to take the moral high ground and consider the longer environmental impacts of events when you know where your next meal is coming from.

Existential worries are a privilege for those who have the financial and social security to not worry about the immediate future of their careers, families and general wellbeing.

Speaking from personal experience (my mother is heavily involved with her local XR group and other environmental campaigns) almost all climate activist groups hold a common demand. In order to mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change, governments must move away from their relentless quest to grow on an annual basis economically.

We must sacrifice the comforts that come with a prosperous free market

Growth is synonymous with consumption, and almost always, consumption comes at the cost of the planet. Bristol Airport expansion is a case and point.

We, as a developed western society, must sacrifice the comforts that come with a prosperous free market which undoubtedly includes not getting that cheeky £20 return flight from Zante. However, as with all radical societal change it will be the poorest in society who will feel the brunt of this change the most.

Not only will they miss out on the cheap package holidays we all enjoy but the opportunity for reliable well-paid employment that a multi-million pound airport expansion provides.

From airports to meat taxes to diesel car bans, this issue of leaving those with the lowest income to sacrifice the most in the ‘green revolution’ is not going away. And from my experience all too often, it is left out of the climate activists’ rhetoric.

To be clear, devoting time to campaign for a more sustainable future is nothing short of inspiring. I am proud of my mum every day. But when faced with a problem of this enormity, a level of pragmatism must be applied.

Until we can ensure the green revolution does not disproportionately impact the most vulnerable, real change will undoubtedly come too little, too late.

Featured image: Bao Menglong

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