Heathrow 13 on trial - but who are the guilty ones?

Next week 13 people will stand trial for their role in challenging the climate crimes of Heathrow expansion. But who are the guilty ones? Ordinary people who risk arrest and personal liberty to stop carbon emissions and draw attention to the devastation of aviation expansion, or a rich business-government partnership that wants to build an unnecessary third runway that will crash our emissions targets, further damage the health of local communities and cause catastrophic climate change?
Last summer, shortly after the publication of the Davies report which recommended expansion of Heathrow, 13 members of Plane Stupid occupied Heathrow’s northern runway, constructing a sophisticated fortress in the early hours of the morning, with a polar bear seated on top of an iceberg in a cage and the rest locked on in various ways. They stayed in position for six hours, causing the cancellation of a number of flights, saving hundreds of tonnes of carbon being released into the atmosphere, whilst apologising for any disruption caused to passengers. They were eventually arrested and charged for aggravated trespass and being airside without permission.

The 'Heathrow 13' now face a two-week trial at Willesden Magistrates Court, starting next week (18th-29th January). All 13 have pleaded not guilty, and will be running a ‘necessity’ defence of preventing greater harm. They believe their actions were justified, necessary and proportionate in the face of the destruction and public health damage caused by Heathrow airport, and plan to draw on witnesses including leading climate scientists, politicians, prominent authors, campaigners and local residents to give evidence.

Court schedule and sentencing

Each defendant will be giving evidence, in turn from the 18th-21st January, with defence experts and witnesses giving evidence from 21st-25th January. Judgement will be given on 29th Jan at Uxbridge Magistrates Court (note change of location for final day). If convicted, the sentencing may be given a few weeks later.

Possible sentences range from fines and community service to up to 3 months in prison. Prison is a real possibility, following the recent imprisonment of peaceful protestors – such as the Love Activists who occupied the old Bank of England to highlight lack of support for the homeless, and Trenton Oldfield who disrupted the Oxford-Cambridge boat race in protest of elitism and inequality – which could indicate a trend towards more severe sentencing for people taking peaceful direct action. It’s a risk the defendants have said they are willing to take, noting that a short spell in prison is still a life of privilege compared to those living on the frontlines of climate change such as low lying Pacific Island states, facing the total destruction of their homes, communities and entire way of life.

Direct action is a vital part of any functioning democracy. It’s played a key role in many of the civil liberties we take for granted today such as the eight-hour working day, the weekend, women’s right to vote, equal rights for people regardless of race and ethnicity. Since the Heathrow action, the discourse around whether to expand Gatwick or Heathrow has shifted to include climate change. This is no longer a debate around which airport to expand, but whether to expand at all.

More runways means more climate chaos and air pollution

 When you look at the facts, it’s clearly the Government and Heathrow airport that should be on trial. They cannot be relied upon to take action on climate change, instead going in the opposite direction.

The urgent need to take action is clear, given breaches of the Climate Change Act and EU limits on NO2, poor health and early death due to air and noise pollution from the airport, and increasing CO2 concentrations leading to catastrophic climate change, which is causing the sixth mass extinction event and, if action is not taken, will result in the displacement of 75 million people by 2035 and exponentially more beyond, as well as death, disease and injury to people - last year alone 300,000 people died due to climate change. Being one of the hardest industries to decarbonize, the only way to reduce emissions from aviation is to fly less.

Giving evidence for the defence is Professor in Energy & Climate Change Alice Bows-Larkin on the impacts of aviation on climate change, and Associate Professor Steven Barrett on air quality and public health impacts of UK airports. Bows-Larkin’s research found in 2005 that, if aviation growth isn’t reduced, by 2037 all of the carbon that it’s safe for the UK to emit will come from aviation alone. Papers by Barrett have warned of more than 50 deaths a year directly attributable to air pollution from Heathrow. They also found that every year UK airport emissions are responsible for 4,400 cases of respiratory symptoms in asthmatic children and 2,300 cases of asthma exacerbation in asthmatic children, as well as 16,000 lost work days and 89,000 minor restricted activity days.

The UK, and particularly London, has long been in breach of EU air pollution limits. Just this week, London breached EU air pollution limits for the whole year in just eight days. Environment ministers will soon be in court over inadequate plans to address dangerous and illegal NO2 levels. 93% of the population-weighted mean due to UK aviation emissions in Greater London is accounted for by airports. This means that 93% of the total aviation emissions (weighted for population) occurs in the Greater London area – and poor air quality is likely to be the dominant environmental cause of mortality in 2050 (even more than dirty water or poor sanitation). Aircraft emissions account for 27% of annual mean NOx emissions near (and 15% 2-3km downwind of) airports. Reports estimate that UK airport emissions at their 2005 baseline cause 110 deaths per year, which will likely rise to ~250 per year by 2030, even without expansion. Expansion at Heathrow would increase UK-wide health impacts due to air quality by 4% in 2030 relative to the baseline (again assuming no expansion). Aircraft emissions already result in approximately 31 deaths per year within 32km of Heathrow.

Perks for the few

The problem is not the average family taking an annual holiday, and that is not what is driving the expansion. Nor – despite what the pro-expansion lobby would have you believe – is it even business flights, which have been in decline for 15 years. What is actually driving demand for more runways is wealthy frequent flyers. The 10-15 per cent of the UK population who flew three or more times last year took a whopping 70 per cent of all of UK flights. 57 per cent actually took no flights at all, with the rest taking just one or two. And the strongest predictors of frequent flyer status? A salary of over £115,000 and ownership of a second home abroad. Not only that, the most popular destinations from the areas with the most frequent flyers are tax havens. The facts speak for themselves – this is about a rich minority living luxury lifestyles, while the rest of us pay the real cost.

Government lies

Five years ago David Cameron unequivocally cancelled plans for a new runway with his now embarrassingly infamous "No ifs, no buts, no third runway" pledge. But he then found some profitable 'ifs' and 'buts' and commissioned Howard Davies to produce the £20 million Airport Commission to decide not 'whether' to expand or not, but 'which' airport to expand. Nowhere in the report was the option of 'neither'. Nowhere was the real impact on the climate and local communities seriously considered. The 'Heathrow 13' group took their action two weeks after the publication of the Airport Commission and before the government’s response to the report, which has now been delayed until after London Mayoral elections.

Support the #Heathrow13

The group has been receiving messages of solidarity from groups and individuals from across the UK as well as further afield such as Turkey and France, where the fight has continued for over 40 years against the proposed Notre Dame des Landes mega-airport near Nantes. Last weekend, on Saturday 9th January, 20,000 people, 400 local farmers on tractors, and 200 bikes blocked the Nantes ringroad in protest against the building of what would be Europe’s largest airport. A forest – known as la ZAD (Zone À Défendre) – has been occupied for years to protect it from the threat of destruction by the airport project. The same story runs through their struggle – local communities, wildlife and the climate face of devastating damage in the name of needless profit.

Supporters will also be outside Willesden Magistrates Court on the first day of the trial (Monday 18th January) for a solidarity demo organised by allies at Reclaim the Power. The theme is RED lines - lines which represent minimum limits for a just and liveable planet; lines that global leaders inevitably crossed in their genocidal deal, signed in Paris, and which Heathrow would cross in the building of a third runway. Defending those red lines is not a crime, and the Government has shown that it can’t be trusted to take action. The facts speak for themselves – it’s new runways or a safe climate; we can’t have both.

Plane Stupid will be covering the court proceedings on Facebook, Twitter and their website with daily updates. Support the #Heathrow13 by sharing updates on social media and/or come down to the court and join the solidarity demo on Monday.