Of Flying and Lying

Of Flying And Lying
by Jo Abbess
24th May 2008

(Report from 22nd May 2008 Evening Standard Influentials Debate “DOES LONDON NEED A BIGGER HEATHROW ?”)

It’s rather grand upstairs at the RSA (*). All that weight of history, very old oil paintings on panels, a frieze on the wall, Jupitan in heaviness. We’re waiting for the start of the debate. Late, already.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, I can see him on the frieze, in 17th Century costume, with the Quaker brimmed hat, and napkin cravat, completely in the wrong time zone for the rest of his painting. He is reading a scroll.

The motto above the stage seems to read “Patria Cara, Elexior Libertas”, or at least that’s what I noted. I suppose it means something like “Beloved Country, Freedom by Choice”, but I can’t remember much of the Latin I tried to learn, so I’m not sure.

I glance at the free copy of the Evening Standard newspaper with it’s frontpage headline “PETROL CRISIS ? YES, MINISTER”.

The panellists file in. The camera clicks and flashes. Veronica, Editor of the Evening Standard stands up and talks of cordiality. She’s wearing vintage Jackie Kennedy, all 1960s short trim white frock. We learn of the Rules of Engagement.

Welcome to the great Heathrow debate.

“The woman in the hot seat” is the first to be asked to speak. Ruth Kelly admits that Heathrow is a subject that arouses passionate feelings. That air travel has afforded us unprecedented opportunities to see the world. Children expect to be able to travel. 50% of us have friend or family abroad. “I don’t think that as a matter of principle [we should] set out to ration flights.”

She went on to claim economic benefits. Financial Services people fly 6 times as much. International businesses locate near a good airport… that raises a question for me : if Heathrow is so universally acknowledged to be bad, why do so many businesses reside in London ?

Ruth Kelly claimed that the reality is that Heathrow is bursting at the seams, and that this damages Britain’s reputation. Sweetheart, I wanted to say, Britain’s reputation is in tatters, and the fact that Heathrow is rubbish is only a small part of that. Shall we talk about Iraq ?

Ruth Kelly talked about how fog can through out Heathrow’s operations for a whole day, and I felt like rejoindering : well, if you run an airport with such little slack, it should be expected that a little bit of adverse weather will snarl things up.

Ruth Kelly said there is a problem with runway capacity. She is clearly a “glass-half-empty” person, always analysing in terms of what she thinks is missing. I mean, when there are less cheap flights going through Heathrow it will definitely become more streamlined.

Ruth Kelly said she wants to increase capacity in a “sustainable way”, at which point I would have walked out of the room, were it not for the fact that I was hemmed in on all sides. How can increasing business at Heathrow be sustainable ? I mean, already a little fog virtually closes it down. Sooner or later the amount of traffic at Heathrow will create a crisis or a disaster. The whole system is unsustainable.

Ruth Kelly wants to see “sustainable” development at Heathrow as long as local environmental conditions are met.

Then, Ruth Kelly started to pay fat lip-service to Global Climate Change.

“If we don’t take action the results [will be] catastrophic.” We must take action on Climate Change. We are the first country to commit to a legally binding agreement on Carbon Dioxide emissions reductions.

Ruth Kelly pointed out that in many energy sectors, fuels can be substituted for, but that aviation is a much tougher nut to crack. There’s no real way to fly planes apart from using kerosene jet fuel. She said it was unbelievable that it would be possible to fly in a significantly different way.

At which point, I looked at George Monbiot and thought : hasn’t Ruth Kelly read what George Monbiot has written recently about lighter-than-air craft ? Yes, it would be possible to fly in a different way, very much different, with hugely less Carbon impact. Ruth Kelly is clearly under-informed.

Ruth Kelly talked about how aviation has to be dealt with in a slightly different way that other emissions sectors. Under the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme aviation will be set an absolute limit of emissions, the base level of 2005. These emissions would be paid for by airlines buying Carbon Permits from other sectors in the EU, probably in electricity generation.

One obvious conundrum springs to mind : so, what if the electricity generators say they don’t want to de-carbonise simply to allow aeroplanes to continue to take off ?

What if the electricity generation businesses say that it is not fair, not a level playing field for aviation to carry on flying, carry on increasing emissions, while the power generation sector are forced to invest to reduce emissions by their own factor plus the aviation factor ?

Paying for someone’s lunch is one thing. Paying for another business sector’s rising emissions is another.

Ruth Kelly admitted that there would be local impacts to having a Third Runway at Heathrow. Goodbye to Sipson. Noise – worse for some, better for others (pretty universal audible sneering from the audience at that comment). Any development has to adhere to strict local environmental assessment – on noise, air quality, local surface transport access.

Ruth Kelly said “I have to weigh the evidence. I won’t shirk in taking a decision. Any decision will not be universally popular… [that decision must be] in the long-term interests of the country…”

Well, the long-term interests of the country, as defined by the Ministry of Defence, for one, include massive reductions in Greenhouse Gas Emissions to air, and buying Carbon Permits from across Europe under the current National Allocation Plans do not amount to a massive reduction in emissions.

I did clap Ruth Kelly, out of general politeness, but I was not thankful.

George Monbiot stood up to the microphone and said that he had a “subtly different view” to the Minister, which raised a tickle of a giggle.

George Monbiot explained that if anyone were asked to design a scheme, a system designed to cause misery, you couldn’t do better than build a new runway at Heathrow.

Building what effectively would be a new airport, causing a 300% rise in flights over South East London, and bringing and end to the “alternating agreement” whereby flightpaths over West London change at 3pm every day to give folk a rest from the noise, and then spread that misery as far as you can.

George Monbiot wanted to know from the Minister Ruth Kelly how she’s assessed the evidence. The decision has to be based on evidence, so why was it rigged by BAA (the British Airways Authority) ?

George Monbiot claimed that the evidence had been “reverse-engineered” to give the numbers that would satisfy BAA and had no basis in reality, whatsoever.

George Monbiot went on to claim that this was not the first lie on which Runway Three is to be hung. There is a history of lies. Then Terminal 4 T4 was built we were promised there would be no T5. There was a promise to cap flights at 480,000 [but R3 would operate to provide 750,000 daily flights].

“Where’s this going to end, Minister ?” he quizzed, “You say this is for our benefit…prosperity. What is this prosperity for ?” He went on to project that Ruth Kelly’s position was effectively saying “humanity exists only to serve the Economy”. And he asked, quite reasonably, why business people can’t use videoconferencing ?

George Monbiot argued that Ruth Kelly was assuming the way things are done is the only way of doing them. Why do we have to be subordinated to the demands to fly more and more ? Other countries in the European Union are facing the same issues, so it’s of no consequence to claim that if we don’t expand Heathrow, flights will go to other airports (gasp !) in other countries (phew !).

This is using the argument that if we don’t do it, someone else will, so we might as well do it ourselves. This is morally questionable. George Monbiot went on to ask, “Why don’t I steal the Minister’s handbag ?”, as an example of using this same logic – if he doesn’t do it, then somebody else will.

George Monbiot asked us to consider that using the Government’s own figures, aviation will constitute 91% of all emissions under the regime of the Climate Change Bill where Britain’s emissions have to reduce by 60% by 2050.

He said that if you take another way of calculating, that could well be 258% of the Carbon Budget. How are we going to purchase enough permits to buy our way out of that ?

In summary, George Monbiot emphasised that Heathrow development was a string of broken promises, and would enhance the sum of human misery. “It is an abomination, Minister, and you should be ashamed of it.”

Of course, we had to get the “business” perspective after this obvious attempt at emotional manipulation…

(To be continued…)

(*) The full title of the RSA is the “Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce”, and is commonly known as “Royal Society of Arts”.

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