Why I joined Extinction Rebellion and broke the law

This letter was published by Local Transport Today in May 2019 in response to this news item.

After a lifetime of paying my taxes, avoiding parking fines and generally obeying the law, a few days ago I defied an order to leave a protest area, was arrested, went back, was arrested again, and charged (‘Transport academic arrested at protest’ LTT 26 Apr). In the back of a Black Maria I found myself face-to-face with a consultant from one of the top transport consultancies who had just committed a similar offence. “I can’t understand some of my colleagues,” he said. “They are all educated people. They have access to the same evidence. Why are they not drawing the same conclusions [about the need for action on climate change]?”

I wondered how many of them had read any of the evidence. On this issue like many others, people rarely make time to read the evidence for themselves. Over the past few years I have been teaching about transport and climate change, so I’ve had to read around the subject. I have watched the cautious language of the climate scientists and the UK’s Committee on Climate Change gradually strengthening. If you want to form your own view, a good place to start would be the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Summary Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C and the Committee on Climate Change’s 2018 report to Parliament. Look at the executive summary and chapter 5 about the biggest contributor to the problem: transport. 

Putting those two reports together, you will appreciate the crunch point we have now arrived at. The initial targets in the 2008 Climate Change Act were based on the IPCC’s earlier recommendations, to keep global warming below 2°C. But more recent studies have concluded that would be too risky. Unless we cut faster we risk “tipping points” such as melting permafrost causing global warming to accelerate beyond our control. Three years after the Paris Agreement the Government belatedly asked the Committee on Climate Change to re-examine the UK’s carbon targets. Its new report, published last week, recommends deeper cuts more quickly. 

Will these new targets be achievable? To quote the opening line of the Committee’s 2018 report to Parliament: “The UK is not on course to meet the legally binding fourth and fifth carbon budgets.” And that’s compared to the current targets – before any further reductions.

If we look at just one area, aviation, the numbers simply don’t add up. The Committee on Climate Change has bent over backwards to accommodate the Government’s desire to expand airports and aviation. Its current recommendations assume that aviation emissions in 2050 will be the same as they were in 2005. They assume a 60 per cent increase in demand, offset by some pretty optimistic technological and efficiency improvements.

To allow for this growth, the whole of the rest of the economy would have to cut by 85 per cent – under the existing targets. In 2016 the Committee wrote to the Government pointing out that current aviation policies would bust those carbon budgets. Surface transport, which should be easier to decarbonise, is also moving in the wrong direction.  

According to the Government’s figures, domestic transport now accounts for 28 per cent of UK carbon emissions, far outstripping any other sector including industry, power generation and agriculture. If you add international aviation and shipping, transport’s contribution rises to 35 per cent. But the official figures understate the impact of international aviation for two reasons. Carbon emissions in the upper atmosphere have a greater impact than on the ground, and most travellers to and from British airports are UK residents, so more than half of those emissions should be allocated to the UK. There is uncertainty around the quantitative impacts of the ‘upper atmosphere effect’, but making ‘rule of thumb’ adjustments for those two factors would push transport over 40 per cent of emissions – and rising.

Now factor in more stringent carbon targets, look at the scale of the change that is needed and ask yourself: do you honestly believe the UK is going to achieve those cuts? And if some other countries are doing even less, does that mean (as some press commentators suggest) that we are off the hook, or does it mean we have to cut even more?

Are we really willing to accept consequences including: sea level rise, desertification, extreme weather events, extinctions of species and mass migrations from areas that become uninhabitable? How can people carry on with business as usual, or worse (on road building and airport expansion, for example) knowing that those consequences are likely to follow? 

Like thousands of other people, like many of you, I have spent years trying legitimate ways to persuade those in power to change course on policies affecting climate change. Some of them have shown understanding and taken some action, but it has all been too little too late. Averting climate change is now about the art of the impossible, and we cannot expect politicians to lead us there. We, and they, need a shock from outside the political system to stretch the boundaries of possibility. Reluctantly I, and many others, have decided that we need civil disobedience to provide that shock.

An open letter to the teachers of Ontario

Dear teachers,

At the age of 57, after teaching about transport and climate change for ten years, I am now facing criminal charges for refusing to leave a protest which began outside the offices of the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan (OTPP) in London.  I have never done anything like this before.  I am appealing for your help, to persuade the trustees of your pension plan to end their support for airport expansion, which is threatening to violate the UK’s legal obligations to cut carbon emissions.

You may have read or seen about the recent actions of Extinction Rebellion, blocking roads in central London.  You may not have heard that on the first day of those protests, on April 15th, a group of us protested and blocked the roads outside the offices of OTPP.  Your pension plan owns five airports across Europe, (as well as other companies dependent on fossil fuels.)  One of them is Bristol, where I live.  Bristol airport has recently applied to expand both its flight capacity and car parking to support it.  It has longer-term plans to more than double passenger movements by 2040.  This video, featuring young people from this area, explains why those plans are particularly unsustainable.  London City Airport, also owned by OTPP, also has big expansion plans.

The Climate Change Act 2008 commits the UK to reducing its emissions by 80% by 2050, which poses a problem for a government committed to expanding aviation.  The government’s own Climate Change Committee has recommended a cap on aviation growth, keeping aviation emissions flat, while the rest of the economy has to cut more deeply – by 85%.  But even that favourable treatment is not enough for the government and airport owners.  Current plans will bust that cap, as the Committee has told the government.

And all that was based on the current targets.  Following the Paris Agreement those targets are under review and are likely to be toughened.  We are now on a collision course between airport expansion and the law.  Unfortunately, the courts have only limited powers to compel governments to obey the law.  Decisions made today will bust the carbon budgets in a few years time.  By then, it will be too late to correct a disastrous mistake.  As the reports of the IPCC make clear, the consequences of climate change include: sea level rise, desertification, extreme weather events, extinctions of species and mass migrations from areas that become uninhabitable.  That is why we have reluctantly decided that civil disobedience is now needed. 

I am heartened to see that in Canada, as here in Britain, school students have been demonstrating to demand more effective action on climate change.  We owe them our support.

Did anyone ask you if you wanted your money invested in this way? If you are concerned about the impact of climate change on our students and our children, please email the board of your pension plan (politely) asking them to withdraw their support for airport expansion.  If they cannot stop the expansion plans, then they should divest from airports, and other companies dependent on fossil fuels.  Investing on the wrong side of history is not a smart move in the long-run.  Here is a list of board members.  The email convention seems to be: firstname_secondname@otpp.com.

Thank you.

Dr Steve Melia
Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning