The Ghost of Watt Tyler

Watt Tyler was one of the leaders of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. He was a slain by the King’s supporters after drinking a jug of beer “in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King's face.”

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Climate Camp

An article I wrote for my mag after a visit to the climate camp outside Heathrow.

Penny Eastwood shares a joke with a police patrol as she walks around the climate camp she helped set up outside Heathrow Airport. The officers laugh but it was all very different yesterday.

Penny, a co-ordinator at a tree planting project in West Yorkshire, was arrested after she glued her hand to a metal gate on the edge of the camp in protest at ‘heavy-handed’ police tactics.

‘They wandered around the site taking photos of people and made campers walk half a mile down a road with their belongings. At suppertime they came on the camp in large numbers but people escorted them off. The press were off site and they were trying to provoke a ruck,’ she says.

The police insist the operation was necessary to ensure the safety of officers on the site.

However, the protestor’s relationship with the police is ultimately only a sideshow. The real issue is climate change and the expansion of Heathrow. This is why hundreds of people from all over the country – including a large contingent form the local community – have descended on a muddy field in west London close to the perimeters of the airport.

‘We chose Heathrow because building another runway is environmental lunacy,’ she explains as planes roar overhead. ‘The aviation industry likes to claim it is only 3 per cent of UK emissions and 6 per cent globally. But if you unpack the claim a very different picture emerges.’

The figures dates from 1992, she says, and doesn’t take account of the impact of releasing greenhouse gasses high in the atmosphere. The Inter­governmental Panel on Climate Change estimates the impact may 2.7 times greater
but other studies indicate it could be up to four times greater.

‘Also, the government measures outward flights and not return flights originating from this country. So if you take into account uplift and return flights it’s actually more like 20 per cent of UK emissions,’ she says.

But industry and people's homes are still responsible for far more emissions, so why pick on the aviation industry?

‘Because it is the fastest-growing source of carbon emissions in the UK and it’s set to grow three fold,’ Penny says. ‘It is absolutely impossible to accommodate that level of emissions at a sustainable level.’

This charge is backed by the Tyndall Centre, the UK's best-known climate think tank, which claims there is no chance of tackling climate change without cutting aviation emissions. It recently calculated that if nothing changed, all other carbon-emitting sectors of the economy would have to stop emitting any carbon by 2050, just to allow for the growth in air travel.

Yet the government seems intent on building a third runway anyway. A recent progress report on the 2003 air transport white paper estimated a third runway is worth £5bn to the UK economy. But Penny claims the cost to the economy of not tacking climate change will be greater than any short-term benefits from increased air travel. The recent floods, she says, have shut countless businesses around the country and are just a taste of things to come.

Another criticism levelled at the camp is that their actions may disrupt ordinary people going on their holidays. Penny stresses their enemies are the air travel industry not passengers. ‘The whole idea is not to attack people because we need to get people on our side,’ she says.

This is reflected in the targets chosen by protestors: private business flights at Biggin Hill and Farnborough, the Department for Transport, BAA offices and an international freight depot.

The camp itself is a model of sustainability. Most of the site's power needs – including a cinema – are met with a combination of wind turbines and solar panels. The camp also provides compost toilets, a grey water system for filtering wastewater and running water.

But will the camp make any difference? Penny draws a parallel with the abolition of the slave trade: ‘Slavery was once legal and profitable. The slave trade was a bit like the oil addiction of our time. The whole economy rested on the slave trade just as now the whole economy rests on oil.’