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As the Tories talk air pollution – who’s really flying us to disaster?

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New ‘green’ plans from the Tories won’t tackle airline pollution. They are aimed at making ordinary people pay for climate change, writes Sarah Bates, yet it’s the rich that pollute the most
Issue 2665
Pollution from aviation is going up - but the Tories arent going to tackle it
Pollution from aviation is going up – but the Tories aren’t going to tackle it

As millions of ordinary people get ready for a holiday, the government has announced it is considering adding an optional “carbon charge” to flights. It said this could be used to pay for schemes to offset greenhouse gas emissions.

The Tories are trying to look “green” as more people call for action to deal with climate chaos.

Even Boris Johnson pledged to bring in “electric planes” in his first parliamentary speech as Tory prime minister last week.

But while it’s true that aviation is a major factor behind climate change, it isn’t true that we are all equally to blame.

The solutions put forward by the Tories and the bosses won’t stop climate chaos—they will just try and make us pay for it.

Transport is the largest single contributor to total emissions in Britain, accounting for 27 percent. And the contribution to those emissions made by air travel is growing.

A widely-accepted figure for aviation’s contribution to carbon emissions is around 2 percent.

But author of Climate Change and Aviation Stefan Gossling said the figure is significantly higher. He puts the figure at 5 percent “as a minimum” due to other emissions produced by flights.

These include nitrogen oxides and sulphates, compounds that trap heat and contribute to global warming even more when emitted at a higher altitude.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agrees. It said the warming effect of aircraft emissions is 1.9 times the amount of carbon emissions, due to other gases produced by planes.

Gossling said, “On an individual level, there is no other human activity that emits as much over such a short period of time as aviation, because it is so energy intensive.”

But not all plane travel pollutes equally. The privately chartered jets of the super-rich belch out pollution while only carrying a few passengers.

And the World Bank estimates that flying business class and first class emits around three times the amount of emissions as passengers in standard.

A World Bank study in 2013 estimated that some first class seats could have a “carbon footprint” as much as nine times the size of a standard one.

That’s because the seats are bigger—making it more fuel-intensive to move fewer people.

The Tories and their boss friends want to limit the massive changes we need to deal with climate change. So they focus on “solutions” that largely protect business as usual.

For instance, the latest “carbon charge” won’t actually reduce air emissions. It will just force ordinary people to pay the price for polluting industries—while letting pollution continue.

Some airlines already offer “carbon offsetting” packages during the ­booking process. This is outsourced to firms such as Sustainable Travel ­International Ltd, where customers can donate to a wind farm or a forest conservation programme.

Governments should be investing in these things—and on a much bigger scale. Instead they are looking for ways to snatch more money from ordinary people, while allowing polluting industries to keep expanding.

Another fake solution to the climate crisis is biofuels. Some say these compounds, a mix of standard fossil fuels with other sources, are the most viable alternative. And in the last decade some firms have switched to using more biofuels.

But all fossil fuels need to be left in the ground—not used as a basis for new types of fuel.

There’s no doubt that ­cutting air transport will have to be part of any plan to slash emissions. Airlines carried 4.3 billion passengers ­globally in 2018—an increase of ­­38 ­million on the year before.

And the International Civil Aviation Organisation says that by 2020 global international emissions are set to be 70 percent greater than in 2005.


But we can’t fight climate change with measures that make ordinary people’s lives harder, such as extra charges.

The Yellow Vest movement in France was sparked by a fuel tax rise that was allegedly aimed at tackling climate change.

Some portrayed Yellow Vests as undermining the struggle against climate change—yet Yellow Vests have joined climate protests.

They aren’t unconcerned about the planet, but they refuse to accept that saving it means ordinary people must be worse off.

So what are the real solutions?

Some environmental activists shun air travel completely. School striker Greta Thunberg famously posts pictures of her international train travels.

Others prefer the idea of a compulsory “frequent flier levy,” where air travel gets progressively more expensive the more a person flies. This goes more to the heart of the issue.

A 2014 study revealed that 70 percent of the flights in Britain were taken by 15 percent of people. The pollution crisis isn’t caused by families spending a week in a holiday resort in the summer, but business fat cats flying throughout the year.

The Tories’ carbon charge doesn’t address the fundamental problems with air travel.

A genuine attempt to cut emissions would mean a raft a measures to make sure people can travel without being priced out of aeroplanes.

It would require huge investment in public transport, in particular cheap high speed railways fit for international travel. It would also need to challenge a system where people feel forced to use fast air travel because they have such limited holidays from work.

And it would need a programme of renewable energy to help break the stranglehold of fossil fuels.

Without pouring public resources into these far-reaching measures, any attempt to address carbon emissions won’t get off the ground.

Bosses think runway is ‘done deal’

In Britain, the frontline of the battle against the airline industry is Heathrow Airport.

West London residents have mounted serious opposition to the expansion of Europe’s busiest airport for decades.

And this week the High Court gave permission for campaigners to legally challenge plans for a third runway.

Activists protesting against Heathrow expansion

Activists protesting against Heathrow expansion (Pic: Extinction Rebellion)

MPs voted in June last year to go ahead with the expansion.

Campaigners will argue in the Court of Appeal in October that plans don’t take account of the impact on air quality, climate change, noise and congestion.

John Stewart, chair of residents campaigning group Hacan, told Socialist Worker that the victory was “big news”.

“It’s given local people a bit of a bounce and a bit of hope,” he said.

The airport’s most recent plans have unveiled the utter destruction that a third runway would cause.

It would require destruction of parks, knocking down homes, destroying villages and displacing communities.

Those residents remaining would face years of non-stop work to build over the M25, re-route rivers and construct new roads.

Before the runway is even built, bosses want to add an extra 25,000 flights a year into Heathrow.

In the year since parliament voted, the explosion of Extinction Rebellion (XR) and worldwide school strikes has shifted debates about climate change.


“I think we’re all a bit surprised about what an impact XR has had,” said John.

“It has put concern about the climate in the mainstream.

“No issue stays on top of the agenda for forever and a day, but a corner has probably been turned.”

Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye responded to Boris Johnson’s victory as new Tory leader by calling the third runway “a fait accompli”.

He said the project was, “a critical part of any new prime minister’s agenda”.

But John Stewart said that Heathrow bosses are “worried about the political situation—it’s the one thing they can’t control”.

“The situation is a crisis for the local Tories,” he added.

A third runway can be stopped.

The government will next year have to agree or disagree with planning inspectors’ recommendations, following a public consultation.

This creates a window of opportunity. Far from being a lost cause, the battle against expansion needs to be bigger and stronger than ever.

“We’re going to tap into this renewed concern,” said John. “And we’re going to tap into a new wave of optimism that we can stop the third runway.”

Boeing not clear for takeoff

Plane travel isn’t just polluting—company cuts might kill you.

On 29 October last year all 189 people on board a Lion Air flight died as it plunged into the Java Sea 13 minutes after take-off.

And on 10 March this year an Ethiopian Airlines flight suffered a similar fate, claiming 157 lives.

Both were Boeing 737 Max—a model that had only been in operation since May 2017.

“Anti-stall” devices malfunctioned in both crashes and locked the planes into irreversible nose dives.

Paul Njoroge lost his wife, mother-in-law and three children in the Ethiopian Airlines crash and spoke at a US congressional hearing last week.

He accused Boeing of “utter prejudice and disrespect” and blasted the firm for focusing on profits “at the expense of the safety of human life”.

How and why the model was constructed shines a light on the deadly capitalist priorities of the aviation industry.


Plans to develop the Max were announced three months after rival Airbus launched its new plane.

The Airbus A320neo received a record number of orders at the June 2011 Paris Air Show—spurring Boeing bosses into action.

Instead of designing a new plane, engineers bolted a new, more efficient engine onto existing structures. Law regulation and a cosy relationship with a federal regulation body meant Boeing could self-certify that the planes were safe.

Since the model has been grounded, US regulators have found yet more problems with it.

But still the firm is planning to rebuild—and rename—the model.

Last month it emerged that the firm outsourced vital safety work to subcontractors.

Boeing admitted that it knew in 2017 that a warning light that told crew about the sensor issue wasn’t installed correctly.

It didn’t tell regulators until it was too late.

Johnson’s lies about airport expansion are back to haunt him

Boris Johnson infamously promised to fight Heathrow expansion.

“John McDonnell, I will join you,” he said. “I will lie down in front of those bulldozers and stop the construction of that third runway.”

He made the announcement at the election count for his seat in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip, which is under the Heathrow flightpath.

But when parliament voted on the expansion plans, Johnson left the country and missed the vote.

It’s almost like he didn’t mean it.

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