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Carbon allowances can cut emissions

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Protest campaigns against big developments are nothing new.

People have been demonstrating against variations on the theme of technological advance since riots swept through the mills at the start of the industrial revolution. From Newbury Downs to Oxleas Wood, protesters camped out and tied themselves to trees to object to roads and bypasses throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Planned power stations are rarely popular.

But are we seeing something new now, with the growing campaign against runway construction and, specifically, the extension of Heathrow? And, perhaps even more importantly, are protesters choosing the right target?

Obviously, at the heart of the campaign against the third runway stands the local community: the villagers whose homes, church and school will be swept away. Some of those people have been there since Heathrow was an airstrip, fighting a rearguard action against the encroachment of buildings and noise. Wider opposition comes from people living under the actual or proposed flightpaths. All understandable (especially if they don’t fly themselves), since few people seek out traffic noise.

Yet what has marked out the campaign against Heathrow’s expansion has been the extent to which it has meshed with the growing awareness of climate change. Air travel is perceived to be on the front-line of the fight to curb carbon emissions – a clear manifestation of our reckless pursuit of pleasure, regardless of cost.

There is truth in this argument. Air travel is the fastest growing source of carbon emissions of any sector and, even if it wasn’t, there comes a point when symbolic positions have to be taken in order to demonstrate our seriousness of intent. We cannot endlessly defer the choices we need to make to stop runaway climate change. My one caveat, however, is that symbolic decisions can crowd out broader truths. For, while carbon emissions from aviation may be growing faster than in any other sector, aviation creates a small proportion of the overall total. So, while we must make aviation pay for all its environmental costs, and check its rapid growth (especially in respect of short haul flights), the really big wins in terms of cutting carbon will come from housing, industry and road transport.

What our ingenuity and technical capacity should enable us to deliver before too long are individual carbon budgets. Within an overall cap, people must be free to decide on how to use up their carbon allowance. We may not be there yet, but I suspect we are not far away from a totally different way of approaching these important environmental decisions.

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