Comment: Justice has already failed at Heathrow

As 13 activists face prison for trying to curb the environmental impacts of aviation, Heathrow airport continues its destructive operations unchecked


Last July, thirteen of us locked ourselves to a tripod we built on the Northern runway at Heathrow airport, causing the cancellation of 25 flights. Why did we do this? Because an aviation sector that already prevents us from reaching legal air quality and climate change targets is now threatening to expand.

During our trial, it was a requirement of our defence to prove that our actions prevented death or serious injury, and each one of us was asked by the prosecution to provide the names and addresses of individual people, known to us personally, who would draw their last breath if we hadn’t gone onto the runway that day.

What we know is this: last year, air pollution in our capital city accounted for the premature deaths of 75,000 Londoners in what has been described on this blog and elsewhere as a public health disaster. Scientists can pin at least 31 of these deaths specifically on Heathrow’s operations, within a 20-mile radius of the airport (the actual toll could be much higher).

In the same year, over 300,000 people died from climate change events, such as floods, droughts, extreme weather, or their knock-on impacts like malnutrition and malaria. The vast majority of these people lived in global south countries, where climate impacts are felt most and governance infrastructure is least able to cope.

We can link aviation to climate change, and we can link climate change to death. We cannot list the names and addresses of people in the global south whose lives are cut short by the frequent flying habits of a wealthy minority in the global north, but we nonetheless feel the imperative to act. Unfortunately, that doesn’t cut it in a court of law.

But who is really on trial here? Let’s imagine putting Heathrow in the dock.

First charge: air pollution. Heathrow airport must abide by air quality targets set by the European Union in an attempt to prevent the loss of life that accompanies breathing bad air. The safe limit on Nitrogen Dioxide is set to a maximum of 40 µg/m3 NO2, averaged over a year.

On two of the four days we sat in Willesden Magistrates’ Court this January,  DEFRA monitoring stations in Harlington, 1km away from the airport, measured local Nitrogen Dioxide levels at 91 and 88 µg/m3. Closer to source, the stations at Heathrow’s gates reported a whopping 200 µg/m3.

According to DEFRA, the perimeter road around Heathrow is projected to be the second most polluted street in Britain by 2025, without taking a third runway into account.

The Airports Commission, a supposedly independent commission that last July recommended building a third runway at Heathrow, admits that, without actions to mitigate emissions, this runway would ‘delay compliance with the [Air Quality] Directive and hence would not be deliverable within the legal framework’.

If Heathrow already breaches NO2 limits on a regular basis, and is set to be one of our worst pollution hotspots in ten years, then a doubling of freight traffic surely blows all hopes of compliance, whatever ‘mitigation’ efforts are made.

The UK government is currently in the dock for ignoring the directive. Following a 2013 supreme court ruling that they were routinely breaching EU limits, the government is due to be tried, again, this March, for failing to offer any realistic plans to deal with the problem.

With potentially criminal negligence on the part of our government,  it is hardly surprising that Heathrow Airport isn’t taking air pollution seriously, either.

The second charge concerns Heathrow’s contribution to climate change. This is a charge that the legal system is less equipped to cope with, given the long-term and diffuse impacts of emissions on climate warming. But the connection is still clear:

Heathrow accounts for almost half of the CO2 emitted by our entire aviation sector, which itself accounts for about 6 per cent of total UK emissions (or double this, if you take ‘radiative forcing’ into account). That’s an enormous climate impact coming from twelve square kilometers in Hillingdon.

Back in 2009, the government set a target to reduce aviation emissions to 2005 levels by 2050. The Committee on Climate Change tentatively concluded that, together with a 90 per cent cut in CO2 from other sectors, this might be enough to help us reach our obligations under the Climate Change Act.

Several years on, does a 90 per cent cut from other sectors sound remotely plausible? Is a reduction in aviation emissions compatible with the expansion of Europe’s busiest airport? Surely only bad maths or malicious intent can make that equation add up.

Last December, the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, MP Huw Irranca Davies, said:

“Planes are becoming more fuel efficient, but this alone will not keep aviation emissions in line with the government’s climate change targets given the growth in passenger numbers. Even without expansion, aviation is on track to exceed its climate change target.

“We heard evidence that those targets might be met in theory, but at present there is a policy vacuum and evidence-based scepticism as to whether they can be met in practice.”

Our current legislation for clean air and a safe climate isn’t even particularly ambitious, and yet so far there is very little consequence for those who ignore or abuse it.

The cold reality of the present situation is that 13 ordinary people are preparing to serve prison time for peaceful demonstration at Heathrow, while decision-makers in business and government are allowed to continue driving the aviation juggernaut further into disaster.

Those with the power to turn this juggernaut around are running on autopilot, humming mindlessly at the wheel. If citizens are compelled to use their bodies to try and physically slow it down,  then justice has already failed.

Bec Sanderson is a social science researcher and writer

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