Leading article: Local protests and a global climate emergency

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The Independent Online

Campaigners against the expansion of Britain's airports are flying high. As we report today, Manchester Airport's proposal to build a new car park on the Cheshire Green Belt has been killed off. This follows Luton Airport's announcement last week that it is abandoning its own ambitious expansion plan. Luton's Spanish owners, Abertis, cited cost as the reason. But it is also likely have had something to do with the high levels of local resistance. These twin victories will give heart to those thousands battling against the expansion of other British airports.

The rest of us should be heartened, too. These campaigns are led by local communities, protesting mainly about the impact of expansion on the immediate environment in terms of noise and air pollution. But they are far from parochial affairs. Through their lobbying, these groups are helping to preserve more than just the tranquillity of their own small corner of the world. They are helping to maintain the stability of the global climate.

According to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, if our aviation sector continues to grow at the present rate, its carbon emissions alone will exceed Britain's entire current output of greenhouse gases by 2050. More efficient aircraft will help reduce emissions, but by nowhere near enough to keep them within safe levels. The inescapable fact is that the growth of the sector needs to be curbed if Britain is to play its full part in the battle against climate change.

The airline industry argues that larger airports are good for our economic growth. Although such benefits are usually exaggerated, there is some truth in this. But those economic benefits will be dwarfed by the damage that will be inflicted by climate change in the long term. The respected economist Sir Nicholas Stern spelt out those costs in his report on the economic effect of global warming for the Treasury last year. Any serious strategic analysis of the UK's economic interests will conclude, in the light of Stern, that a massive expansion of the aviation sector is undesirable.

Despite this abundance of evidence, the Government is mired in a fearful muddle when it comes to aviation. A White Paper in 2003 on the future of air transport concluded that an expansion of British airports was economically necessary. This was reinforced by a Treasury report last year by the former head of British Airways, Sir Rod Eddington, which recommended the extension of Heathrow Airport to ease flight congestion in the South-east. In addition, another recent White Paper proposed to centralise the planning process. The result will be the overriding of local concerns over airport expansion plans. Indeed, the former Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly, specifically cited the delays to Heathrow's Terminal 5 as a justification for this legislation.

If the Government is serious about mitigating climate change, it must impose controls on the aviation industry. Bringing aviation into the European Union carbon-trading framework, as the Government proposes, would be welcome. But it would not be sufficient on its own. We need an EU-wide levy on airline fuel to remove a substantial hidden subsidy enjoyed by the airlines. The price of flying needs to reflect much more closely the cost it inflicts on the global environment.

The Government's strategy need not rely solely on new taxes. The goal of reducing the demand for flying can also be brought nearer by promoting lower-carbon transport solutions, such as the train network. But it is clear that this dangerously ambivalent approach cannot continue. The Government must accept that indulging the aviation industry is incompatible with the necessary action needed to protect the environment.