Guilty verdicts have been handed down against 13 climate activists protesting against the expansion of Heathrow airport in the UK. The Heathrow13 were on trial for climate change direct action civil disobedience occupying a runway of Heathrow airport in July 2015.
On the same day in France a judge of the Supreme Court in Nantes handed down an eviction notice to farmers and inhabitants of Notre-Dame-Des-Landes (NDDL) north of Nantes. These farmers and new occupants are resisting the construction of a new airport.
Civil aviation is one sector where carbon emissions are rapidly growing contributing to climate change, with little being done to constrain or reduce greenhouse gas pollution from this and the associated shipping industry. Currently 5 per cent of global emissions, more than the UK and Germany combined, come from shipping and aviation. The UN climate conference in Paris considered this sector in the draft versions of the agreement, but any mention of this sector was dropped from the final agreement.
Heathrow 13 face 3 months in prison warns Judge
In London the Heathrow 13 were on trial for occupying the northern runway in July 2013. The occupation, the first on a Heathrow runway, lasted six hours and delayed or cancelled dozens of flights saving an estimated 250 tonnes of CO2. The activists all pleading not guilty for aggravated trespass and being airside without authority. They argued that they have saved lives in the face of climate chaos and that the action was reasonable and justified in the context of climate change.
The Heathrow expansion is the big test of the UK government’s seriousness about climate change, particularly in the wake of the December 2015 UN Climate Conference in Paris which succeeded in 195 nations agreeing to the historic Paris Agreement to limit emissions so that average global temperatures would remain well below 2 degrees Celsius and aspire to the 1.5 degree goal.
Heathrow airport represents 48% of UK emissions from aviation.
David Cameron's conservative government was elected promising no expansion to Heathrow airport. "The third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts.” he said. In a policy u-turn, the government has reneged on this promise.
The legal defence of the Heathrow 13 was based on the law of necessity in directly preventing emissions which contribute to climate change and significant numbers of deaths arising from climate and pollution impacts from civil aviation.
The guilty verdict was handed down by Judge Wright, even though she found the defendants were passionate and well motivated people concernwd with the impacts of climate change. “There can be no doubt that the defendants are very committed to tackling the problems of climate change and that they acted as they did on the 13th July in what they genuinely believed was in the best interests of the public and society as a whole” said Judge Wright.
She told the defendants to prepare for the likelihood of an unusually harsh sentence on February 24th, possibly to expect 3 months in prison.
The Heathrow 13 made the following statement after the verdict was handed down:
“Today's judgement demonstrates that the legal system does not yet recognise that climate defence is not an offence. We took action because we saw that it was sorely needed. When the democratic, legislative and processes have failed, it takes the actions of ordinary people to change them.”
“We are very grateful for all the messages of support and solidarity we have received from all over the world, and are immensely proud of the action we took to combat emissions from aviation. Climate change and air pollution from Heathrow are killing people now, and the government's response is to spend millions making the problem bigger. As long as airport expansion is on the agenda, Plane Stupid will be here. We're in it for the long haul.“
Of the ten defence witnesses, only four had their evidence allowed, and none were permitted to appear in court.
During the trial Judge Wright declared that the fact that aviation fuel is linked to climate change is indisputable, but that meant climate scientist and aviation climate impacts specialist Alice Bowes-Larkin was not allowed to appear, although a statement from her was able to be read in court.
The statement detailed that Heathrow “is the airport with the highest CO2 contribution in the world in terms of combined international and domestic flights” and “this puts Heathrow expansion at odds with the UK Government’s commitment to avoiding a ‘well below’ 2’C target, unless a major programme of efficiency and biofuel development are delivered in tandem."
One of the prosecution witnesses, Mr Oxby, Head of Business Resilience, claimed that Heathrow airport contributes around £7bn to the UK economy. Under cross examination he was unable to answer if this took into account the negative impacts of climate change, as for example, the £5bn cost of the recent floods in the North of England, which scientists from Oxford university say has a 40% probability to have been caused by climate change. Nor could he say if it took into account the cost of 3,000 hospital admissions every year due to London air pollution.
George Monbiot’s statement was also ruled inadmissible, but can be read at the Plane Stupid website. In this statement he writes,
“In years to come, those who put their own liberty and in some cases their lives at risk in order to press governments to take action to prevent climate breakdown will be regarded in the same light as the suffragettes, the chartists, the anti-apartheid activists and the antislavery movement. They will be regarded not as outlaws and subversives, but as democratic heroes. Succeeding generations, struggling with the impacts that our government’s failures to take action on climate change bequeathed them, are likely to be amazed that they could have been seen in any other light.”
One of the defendants, Ella Gilbert, detailed her reasons for opposing the airport extension and participating in the civil disobedience occupation. Here are her climate reasons, but read her full statement on the Greenpeace UK website.
"The environmental case against airport expansion – not just at Heathrow – is clear. The sector is stubbornly difficult to decarbonise and efficiency savings are far outstripped by increasing demand. If it were a country, the aviation industry would be the 7th most polluting in the world. According to DfT figures, aviation accounts for 6% of UK CO2 emissions but this figure is misleading because it doesn’t account for the amplified effects of emitting pollutants at cruising altitude, where they are much less readily removed and have more significant climate effects. Add to this the emissions of non-CO2 pollutants and a more accurate picture emerges, though policy-makers are still reluctant to accept that aviation is damaging to local health and global climate.
"Aviation and shipping have so far been the elephant in the room when devising climate legislation, both national and international. Excluded from the 2008 Climate Change Act and Kyoto agreements, the trend has been followed at every climate summit to date – and Paris is no exception. Although included in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme from 2012, only flights that both originate and arrive in the European Economic Area are included – or around 11% of global aviation emissions. The International Civil Aviation Organisation, the specialised UN agency that regulates the aviation industry, makes noise about efficiency improvements and climate change targets but achieves very little. Those in power are taking very little action to tackle aviation’s significant contribution to climate change, so we must."
This is the Statement read out in front of the Willesden Magistrates Court by the Heathrow 13 at the start of the trial on January 18:
After the verdict, 350.org released the following statement about the NDDL opponents and the Heathrow 13 activists.
"We stand in solidarity with the activists in France and the UK, who now face evictions and jail sentences for standing up to protect the climate during protests against the expanding aviation industry. They took bold steps where governments have stumbled, acting out of principle to try and stop the increase in pollution to our air and atmosphere by an industry whose reckless expansion poses a grave threat to our climate.
"Today, courts in each country simultaneously announced verdicts against the #Heathrow13 and 11 families from Notre-Dame-des-Landes (near Nantes) who have taken a peaceful stand against airport expansion. We are grateful for their dedication and shocked by the unjust and disproportionate verdicts that fail to take into account the overwhelming threat posed by climate change."