Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Runway battle is taking off

Airports are where the debate about global warming will be fought most keenly. Of all the aspects of modern living, flying is the one that seems to be completely unreformable. It’s not simply that planes use masses of fuel — they do — but the existence of commercial airlines offering relatively cheap flights across the world encourages us to travel. And we have become a world addicted to travel.

Interesting then to see Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, complaining about the eco-lobby “doom-mongering” over global warming (Daily Telegraph 5 December). Willie’s idea of airport heaven is Dubai where they are currently building a six-runway airport that will be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No whingeing residents there to stop night flying, then!

He also moans about the UK slipping down the route network league. Apparently, dear old Heathrow is down to 5th place in Europe behind Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Munich. Sounds awful, but I think what he is saying is that you can fly to more places from these airports than you can from Heathrow, not that they are busier – they aren’t. Heathrow remains the World’s No 3 in terms of passengers processed, some way behind Chicago O’Hare and Atlanta.

Then Willie goes on the offensive. “People are not going to invest in the UK if the transport infrastructure continues to fall behind.” That sounds a bit rich coming from a Dubliner who has seen hi-tech investment pour into Ireland despite it having a transport infrastructure that has barely changed since independence.

It’s very hard to reconcile this bluster with the government’s stated aim of reducing carbon emissions. Willie Walsh accuses the eco-lobby of ignoring the realities of modern economics. But whilst a few years ago I would have had a lot of sympathy with such a view, I can’t help feeling that it’s maybe Willie Walsh who is now out of touch with reality. Whilst there are potential techno-fixes for many aspects of our carbon usage, there is nothing much we can do about the carbon emissions from flying except doing less of it. That is a conundrum that the capitalist world, built on the nostrum of continuous growth, has yet to confront.

But only yesterday, my brother-in-law’s family of five flew off to Colombia to spend Christmas with their extended family. If we hadn’t been living in the era of mass air travel, I doubt he would ever have met his Colombian wife. But having done so, and having had three children together, they are set to make numerous transatlantic trips to keep both sides of the family in touch. Yet the carbon-free future, which is what the scientific community is beginning to demand, more or less rules out discretionary air travel like this. In theory, it sounds fine, but in practice it will cause a lot of hardship and disruption. That in turn is a conundrum that the eco-lobby hasn’t really confronted either.

So when the battle lines are drawn, it won’t just be Willie Walsh and the unrepentant growth monkeys on one side and George Monbiot and the green utopians on the other. It will be much harder than that. It will divide families and split communities. There will be a few winners and lots of losers. In short, we will return to an era where politics really counts.

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