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Thursday, 3 April 2008

So last week Heathrow's Terminal 5 opened, but not to the adulatory fanfare airport execs had hoped for. Instead, the launch descended into farce.

At least one group of people wanted that outcome. On Thursday morning, hundreds of citizens with no intention of travelling anywhere had converged at the airport. Come 11am, they donned red T-shirts printed with 'Stop Airport Expansion', wandered around, chatted, smiled at the press and drank tea. Some lay on the floor spelling out the words of their rallying cry.

It was a deliberately understated demo. An organizer explained their method: "Almost everything is against the Heathrow byelaws, but wearing a t-shirt is not a crime. So as long as you’re not demonstrating, you’re not breaking the law!"

The T-shirt brigade was hoping to hijack headlines and compromise the glossy launch of the new terminal. Ironically their outcry was eclipsed by BA and/or BAA's own blundering mismanagement, with the result that most news outlets only spared the demonstrators a sentence or two. In the protestors' facebook group, one member joked at intrigue: "I bet BAA organised their complete failure to overshadow the protest... seemed to work on the news!"

Conspiracy theories aside, aviation is entering an era of increasing public scrutiny. Not because baggage handling is such a big deal (the FT's news editor Robert Shrimsley has a very funny piece of faux-reportage here: scroll past the Zimbabwe bit for the legendary intro: “The BBC is banned from Heathrow but our correspondent Orla Guerin got past security disguised as a Samsonite Aeris upright”) but because airports are such an obvious locale for climate anxieties to converge. Planes just about write their carbon emissions in the sky. Green science can get complicated, but almost everyone gets the more-flying-more-climate-change argument. Don't we?

Actually no. Most of us still fly short-haul without a second thought. At Monday's Evening Standard/YouGovStone mayoral debate, one city slicker got up to ask Boris, Ken and Brian why they weren't doing more to protect Heathrow's right to expand. He clearly didn't read the Economist last week. And just because he works in finance, doesn't mean he gets that climate carelessness wreaks unsustainable externalities. As Nicholas Stern pointed out, in his monumental report 18 months ago, climate change is the worst market failure the world has ever seen.

I've heard people say the climate change frontline is in the Arctic, where the polar bears paw at melting ice, or in the drought-stricken, cracked-earth farmland of Northern Kenya. Unfortunately those places stand for battles we've already lost. The true frontlines are the intellectual and geographical spaces where carbon emissions can be counted and cut. And maybe airports are where the stand-off begins: between short-term, profit-chasing expansion and the far-sighted view that is informed by the warnings of the world's leading scientists.

The unpalatable truth is that if we're serious about meeting the government's target for cutting emissions 60% by 2050, we need to rethink our travel habits. That won't happen while flying is so cheap. I picked a random date, 1st of May, and thought about visiting my friend Jeni in Glasgow. I can fly from London to Prestwick for just £28.27 with Ryanair, while the cheapest train ticket - a saver return - is £102.90. And that's booking almost a month in advance. It's all wrong. Easyjet was fun but the cheap fare revolution it kickstarted continues on borrowed time. Time borrowed from future generations.

Thanks to Greenpeace, Amin Allen Tabrizi and Chris Seufert on Flickr for photos.

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