Heathrow expansion, climate change and virtue signalling

“Climate change is one of the most serious threats facing the world today… It is in our national interest to act and ensure others act with us”

David Cameron is the only party leader who signed that pledge in February still in his job, but both Clegg and Miliband’s successors have echoed the sentiment and there’s apparent cross-party consensus that climate change is a serious problem that requires action.

But while that consensus is a great advance on what came before and produced the Climate Change Act, it masks the reality that political commitment to climate change is weaker than it now needs to be.

For a politician or commentator, saying you want strong action on climate change has become a form of virtue signalling: showing off your supposed commitment to tackling a future, widely-recognised and scientifically-backed worldwide threat that will most hit the poorest and future generations (who generally aren’t your electorate) – all without needing to make any difficult decisions.

You might think I’m having a pop at the government here, and in part I am. Despite Cameron’s February pledge and the election manifesto, which supported the Climate Change Act, the first few months of this government have produced a string of cuts and reversals that look set to undermine efforts to reduce emissions. At the same time, the government has maintained an official commitment to meeting our climate targets.

That’s become well known and a target of campaigners’ anger. But what worries me just as much is the less obvious loss of seriousness about climate change among the kind of people who had previously been its strong allies.

This has become clear with the approaching decision on airport expansion. As I’ve argued, expanding our airport capacity would mean either hugely ramping up ticket prices to cut demand and meet our climate targets or keeping prices constant and failing to meet our targets. Since it would be obviously stupid to build a huge new runway and then direct policy to make sure that new capacity isn’t used, it’s pretty much inevitable that building the runway would mean we don’t achieve our targets.

This is the first really hard climate change decision a UK government has ever had to make – and it’s exposing the thinness of many people’s supposed commitment to tackling the problem.

If it weren’t for the climate problem, I would be tempted to back the runway. It’s true there are some other good arguments against expansion, like whether we really need more capacity, and the effect on local air and noise pollution (so maybe build at Gatwick instead). But clever people say it would produce jobs, make the UK more competitive and bring affordable holidays in reach of more low-income people.

But, we do have that climate problem and I haven’t seen anyone offer a serious way of reconciling expansion and our targets. The Davies Commission’s proposal obviously wouldn’t work, so in reality expansion means giving up a serious expectation that we will meet our target (you might hope for a technological breakthrough, but bear in mind the Davies Commission already relies on this with its implausible ticket-hiking plan, so you would need an even bigger deus ex machina and no serious analyst is predicting this).

And yet, many people who signal their climate virtue also support airport expansion.

A quick search of comments by Labour MPs produces the following:

Liz Kendall: “Now is about facing up to the big tough world and globalisation, climate change” (May ‘15) / “The country has to get behind [Heathrow expansion] now” (July ‘15).

Wes Streeting: “On the big issues of our age … tackling climate change … we should be leading Europe” (June ’15) / “It now falls to the government to get on with it [Heathrow expansion] (Sep ’15).

Michael Dugher: “trends in areas such as health, climate change … will require increased cross-departmental working” (Sep ’14) / “More airport capacity is vital to Britain’s economic success” (July ’15) [in fairness he does go on to say it has to be reconciled with climate change commitments].

Up to now, the flimsiness of support for measures to cut our emissions hasn’t been a great problem: the UK hasn’t had to do much that’s particularly difficult to get our emissions down. Politicians and commentators from centre left to right have been able to signal virtue without having to prove they really mean it.

But airport expansion is different. Going ahead is fairly attractive (apart from for many local residents) and I can see how all the arguments against expansion could be overcome – all except for climate change.

As far as I can see – and I’d be delighted to be proved wrong because I really like international travel – UK aviation expansion and our climate targets are irreconcilable. You can’t support continued rapid growth in air passenger numbers and also the UK fulfilling the Climate Change Act.

Perhaps this is the end of the phoney war in UK climate policy. We’ve had mostly fairly easy stuff up to now and virtue signalling has got us through. But opposing airport expansion on climate grounds is much harder.

So far, this contradiction between climate and aviation hasn’t really been noticed. Supporters of expansion have kept climate change out of the debate – whenever I’ve raised it as an objection the most I’ve had in reply has been that the Davies Commission has dealt with it (it hasn’t).

But, the question needs to be asked of every supporter of expansion who also claims to support the UK meeting its climate targets: how do you plan to reconcile vastly more flights with cutting our emissions? The answer may be that runway backers don’t actually think we should meet our climate targets. If so, at least we’d know where we stand.


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