Plane Stupid's Joss Garman plays minister

| 1st December 2006
In the first of the Ecologist's new 'If I...' series, the co-founder of aviation campaign group Plane Stupid imagines what he would do if he were in charge of the government's aviation policy.

I feel terrible. As the Minister responsible for aviation, I've done a disservice to my country. For some time now I have been deluding myself and everyone else - had my head in the clouds, so to speak. Thinking that the airline industry could grow and grow, I've ignored the scientific warnings from my advisor, Sir David King, from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and, most recently, from Oxford University and I've laid out how my government will set the conditions for an unprecedented growth in flying.

The climatologists have been saying that aviation is the fastest growing cause of climate change. Even if we decarbonised the entire rest of the economy - shut down every factory, switched off every light - we'd still miss our modest target of a 60 per cent cut in emissions by 2050 just because of the growth in the amount we fly. I just couldn't face up to the fact that our ability to live in Tuscany on the weekends should be put at stake, however, so I buried my head in the sand.

In my aviation white paper of November 2003, I, along with my colleagues from the Airport Operators Association and the British Air Transport Association, who also kindly funded the study that was the basis of the paper, set out a vision for the biggest airport expansion programme in UK history. To achieve a tripling in the number of air passengers by 2030, we would bring forth the construction of the equivalent of almost three new Heathrows - and help things along with a continuation of the contribution from each taxpayer of £557 each year - to pay for a subsidy to the aviation industry of £9 billion a year.

I went for the building of five or six new runways and gave the thumbs-up for increased capacity at existing ones. I set aside my doubts about the cons of the project, like the fact that it will amount to the biggest forced dispersal of people since the Highland clearances and destroy swathes of ancient woodland and historic buildings, because I was convinced that these were mere 'externalities' - necessary costs of economic growth. Of progress.

How wrong I have been. Even before the publication of the report from Sir Nicholas Stern - a hard-headed economist and friend of this government - I should have paid more attention to detail and looked at the economics more seriously.

A report published by the respected INFRAS Institute in Zurich and IWW at the University of Karlssruhe put the UK's external costs of aviation at around £14 billion per annum in the year 2000. (This included the costs of climate change, noise, local air pollution around airports and the impact of airports on nature and the landscape.) The UK economist and former advisor to the Treasury, Brendon Sewill, did his own sums and calculates that, this year, the cost is likely to be around £16 billion. In other words, the aviation industry's contribution to the economy (estimated at £12 billion by Sewill) is exceeded by its costs.

Furthermore, we have a "tourism deficit" amounting to about £15 billion. (That is, the difference between what Britons spend abroad and what visitors spend in this country.) Unfortunately I've been making things worse by encouraging cheap flights that are haemorrhaging money out of the UK economy. Like I said, I really am sorry, folks. I thought Gordon would have been keeping an eye on the figures, and well, clearly he hasn't.

Unforgiveable? Perhaps. But hear me out because I've got a plan, and I think it might work. Our ability to live on earth is at stake, and so is the economy. Sir Nicholas reports we could be looking at 200 million refugees because of the climate crisis and the World Health Organization is already reporting 160,000 climate change related deaths a year - equivalent to one 9/11 every week. In Africa alone, Christian Aid predicts that 182 million people could die this century because of this global planetary emergency, and Stern predicts that the whole world's economy could crash.

So, I confess, that white paper, well, Richard Branson and Michael O'Leary can wipe their arses on it because that's the best use they're going to get from it under my reign! Those stag dos in Prague - they've got to go too. In fact, all flights to short haul destinations must be banned if we are to curb these emissions in time. Some of these runways can be dug up and used for less destructive ends as well.

This might all sound a tad drastic but since 45 per cent of all flights in Europe are to destinations less than 500km away (to places less in distance than from London to the Scottish border) it's really not so bad. There are still coaches and trains - both more than 10 times less polluting, and frankly it's time we all did our bit. And as for the argument that banning cheap flights hurts the poor...'fraid not. Over 50 per cent of the population doesn't fly in any one year anyway, and 75 per cent of flights on budget airlines are taken by the well-off in social groups A, B and C.

Unconvinced? I'm taking you on a tour. I'll show you the 14th-century buildings I was going to knock down for tarmac. I'll make you listen to jets flying over what used to be a tranquil national park - the Brecon Beacons; I'll show you how seaside resorts like Margate are being sacrificed for the sake of Malaga; and we'll end with dinner with a few of my ambassador friends. If you hear from them how Nairobi, a city built above the malaria line, had now slipped below it; how the island nation of Tuvalu is being evacuated due to rising seas; and how most of sub-Saharan Africa was to become virtually uninhabitable; you'd think twice before telling them that £28 to Barcelona is part of our way of life.

I admit I've been 'plane' stupid and I'm sorry. But you can take my word for it...I'll bring the aviation industry down to earth. Just give me one last chance? Please?

Joss Garman is co-founder of aviation pressure group, Plane Stupid

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2006

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