activism books transport

Book review: Expansion Rebellion, by Celeste Hicks

Heathrow Airport’s third runway is the ultimate ‘zombie’ project – repeatedly shot down as a terrible idea, only to raise its ugly head again. I’ve written it before as a case study in lobbying power, and here the journalist Celeste Hicks details the Heathrow expansion from a legal point of view. Expansion Rebellion: Using the law to fight a runway and save the planet tells the story of the judicial review into the plans, when the High Court ruled that the third runway had not taken climate change into account and could not proceed – only for the Supreme Court to over-rule that judgement later.

As a reminder of what we’re talking about, this is the latest edition of Heathrow’s growth project. It would add a third runway to Britain’s busiest airport, bringing an extra 700 flights a day over London. Since the land around Heathrow is pretty tight, the plan would require the destruction of Sipson and Harmondsworth. The M25 is also in the way, and this is no minor inconvenience. The M25 is the busiest motorway in the country, and it would have to be buried in a tunnel under the airport in order to put the runway on top.

Most importantly, Heathrow is already Britain’s single largest source of carbon emissions. Adding the third runway would make it impossible to meet our legally binding carbon targets. You would think that’s a reason not to do something, but that’s not how it works.

“As someone who cares about climate change you just want to walk into the courtroom and say it’s ridiculous, you can’t expand an airport in a climate emergency” says Pete Lockley, one of the lawyers interviewed in the book. “But as a lawyer you know what it actually comes down to is painstaking research and arguing very detailed legal and technical points.”

Indeed, and the book is full of such things. Expansion Rebellion is about a court case first and foremost, and John Grisham it is not. It’s technical in places. I fell back on the list of acronyms at the back on numerous occasions, and as Hicks says herself, “the twists and turns of the case are hard to follow”. But it’s important to understand what is going on at Heathrow, as a test of Britain’s resolve on climate change, and how serious we really are about cutting emissions. “In the battle to keep global temperatures to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels every infrastructure project in every country matters” writes Hicks. “Leaders cannot simply say one thing and do another.”

Britain has said a lot about climate. One of the things I like about the book is that it’s positive about net zero by 2050 as a transformative moment in the country’s journey towards sustainability. In activist circles it is widely rubbished, decried as too little and too late, and that misses the huge opportunity that it presents. Under the previous target of an 80% reduction, everyone could act as if they were the lucky 5th that didn’t need to act. With net zero, every business, every community, every organisation has to get on board. And that includes aviation.

Aviation has not got the memo yet. It is consistently an exception, left out of international agreements and national targets. That gives it a free pass, and the sector has every intention of free-riding on everyone else’s emissions cuts. Hicks does an excellent job of setting out why and how aviation found itself so elevated, why it can’t be ignored, and the various ways that it can be addressed. She interviews relevant activists and lawyers, though Heathrow repeatedly declined, and describes some quite complex legal arguments in layman’s terms. What’s particularly useful is to see how the totemic Heathrow case, despite being an unresolved story, has already shaped legal challenges to infrastructure in several ways. It is a learning exercise, and has played a significant role in holding the government and developers to account.

This is particularly useful for me in Luton, a mile from an airport that also has every intention of expanding despite the climate emergency. Current plans include genuinely ambitious green initiatives for ground operations, but take no responsibility for the planes once they’re in flight. It’s an almost surreal act of turning a blind eye, but there’s money to be made. In the face of these profits the moral arguments – that this is essentially plundering the atmosphere and can be seen as an act of violence against the global south – do not land. And so we need solutions for challenging bad infrastructure projects, and the law may be the most powerful tool at our disposal.

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