— Hide menu

The Environmental Injustice of Airport Expansion

One of the main arguments the Labour Government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown used to justify its plans for airport expansion was that it was needed to cater for the growing demand for cheap flights which allowed ‘hard working British families’ to fly around the world in a way that only the rich used to be able to afford to do.  They said that was only just and fair.

However, in making that argument, they overlooked the much deeper injustices caused by airport expansion.  The stark fact is that only 5% of the world’s population has ever flown.  The soaring CO2 emissions caused by aviation are largely the result of the rich in the rich world flying ever more frequently – according to the World Development Movement, the third runway at Heathrow would have caused as much CO2 in one year as the entire economy of Kenya.  And the climate change these emissions will contribute to will hit the poorest in the poor world – those people least likely of any on earth to ever fly – most immediately and most acutely.

More than that, this growth of aviation locks the poor world into deeply unsustainable patterns of trade.  The plane, along with the ship, has become the workhorse of the globalised economy.  When peak oil kicks in, it is likely the world will move to a more localized trading system.  The rich nations will have the money to adapt.  The poor ones are likely to be left high and dry.

Airport expansion, too, can be the cause of environmental injustice in localities around the airport itself.  Life under a flight path can become unbearable for anybody, rich or poor like.  The difference is that better off people usually have more options.  Poorer people, particularly in the poor world, can’t move away from the incessant noise.  They can’t afford to insulate their homes.  You don’t find double-glazing in the shanty towns.

These are the very people who are the least likely to fly in the planes roaring above their heads.  They are the victims of other people’s noise, what Les Blomberg, the Executive Director of the Noise Pollution Clearing House in the USA, called second-hand noise:  “Second hand noise is increasingly used to describe noise that is experienced by people who did not produce it.  Like second hand smoke, it’s put into the environment without people’s consent and then has effects on them that they don’t have any control over.”

We are told by many apologists for airport expansion that low-income people don’t mind the noise if the airport creates jobs.  This is to miss the point.  People should not be put in the position of having to live in a noise ghetto (and often a badly polluted one has well) in order to get employment.

We need to find a new way forward.  Technology will help.  It is likely to create cleaner planes though, unless it surprises us, not significantly quieter ones.  Fewer flights are required, with more travel by fast, affordable rail services.  But airport expansion will continue to threaten some of the most vulnerable communities in the world until they feel secure enough to fight back.

John Stewart, HACAN ClearSkies

See also ‘The Economic Argument’

Leave a Reply