by Ella Gilbert
I’m writing this in something of a state of shock. Yesterday, following a hastily shortened trial, and alongside twelve others of the #Heathrow13, I was found guilty of aggravated trespass and being ‘unlawfully airside’ (as it’s known in the biz – whatever that biz may be) and told that it was “almost inevitable that you will all receive immediate custodial sentences”. Everyone else was evidently shocked too. There were gasps in the public gallery as this bombshell was dropped, and cries of “shame on you!” from supporters watching.
The verdict in itself was certainly no surprise, as we had expected our necessity defence – that the action was justified by the devastating impacts that will be be caused by climate change and air pollution – to fail on legal grounds. However, although we had been prepared for custodial sentences on the advice of our barristers, we had not expected it. The previous week, the judge had given positive indications that she might be lenient – suggesting that she wanted the matter to go away quickly. Unfortunately it seems as though it was us that she wanted to go away quickly. I heard some people speculating that she may have come under political pressure over the weekend, given her apparent change of tack. However, the judge has a track record for harsh sentencing – she was drafted in for emergency sentencing following the 2011 London riots and is well known for public order cases. Unluckily for the Plane Stupid activists who blocked the Heathrow tunnel last December, she is also presiding over their case in March. The precedent she set yesterday was not a happy one.
The background is this: in July last year we entered the northern runway at Heathrow and locked ourselves together, erecting a tripod and harris fencing cage to resemble an iceberg. One of us sat on top wearing a polar bear outfit, using classic climate change imagery to underline the link between aviation and climate change. We occupied the runway for six hours, causing 25 flights to be cancelled, and in so doing saving hundreds, if not thousands, of tonnes of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) from being emitted.
Heathrow airport is – or at least was in 2012 – the most highly polluting airport in the world. It is responsible for half of the UK’s emissions from aviation (i.e. it emits the same amount of greenhouse gases as all other UK airports put together). Aviation is responsible for 6% of the UK’s CO2 emissions, but this figure is misleading because the pollutants are emitted at altitude, where they have a more significant climate effect – the figure is therefore usually cited as being 2.7 times larger. That makes aviation responsible for somewhere in the region of 15% of UK emissions, and Heathrow responsible for half of that. After the notorious Drax coal-fired power station, Heathrow is the largest single point emitter of CO2 in the country.
A recent study also found that within a 32 km radius of Heathrow, 31 deaths each year were directly attributable to emissions of NOx from aircraft. This term is short hand for Nitric oxides (NO and NO2), which are implicated in respiratory illnesses like asthma and the infamous ‘Heathrow cough’ which defendant Sam and defence witness Bryan spoke about in their evidence.
In short, Heathrow airport is killing people – both locally through air pollution and globally from climate change. However, it operates in a legislative vacuum – because a company that contributes £7 billion to the UK economy (apparently) doesn’t have to abide by the same rules as the rest of us. Aircraft fuel is exempt from VAT, and aviation has not been included in any national or international climate change legislation, essentially because no one can agree on how to do it. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) recently included aviation in its mechanism, but only flights that originate and arrive in the EU are accounted for: that’s just 11% of global aviation emissions. Heathrow airport regularly violates legal air quality limits for NOx and ozone particularly – in 2013 illegal levels of ozone were recorded at Harmondsworth monitoring station (the only monitoring station in the area) on eleven occasions. Heathrow is permitted ten breaches per year.
Judge Wright in her judgement lingered on the effects to passengers and the UK economy. This is unsurprising – the legal system is not equipped to deal with the uncharted territory that climate change presents. The law does not yet have the vision to see that people can act preemptively to prevent serious harm from threats as nebulous and enormous as climate change. Although we may not know their “names and addresses”, we know that people are dying every day from climate change – hundreds of thousands of people.
We will be – if sentenced as she suggests – the first people in UK legal history to go down for aggravated trespass exclusively. This charge was devised in the nineties to catch protesters, and it is the most common charge I have seen on my activist friends’ rap sheets. This is unprecedented, and we are being made an example of – peaceful protest is very rarely rewarded with prison time except in “exceptional” circumstances. The judgement is intended to deter others, and is symptomatic of the tightening of restrictions on protest and dissent under the guise of austerity – because remember, we are all in it together. Except some of us are more in it than others, and private property trumps human life, every time. The example that is being set is that you cannot cost companies an “astronomical” amount of money, without going down for it.
The judgement is intended to deter others, and is symptomatic of the tightening of restrictions on protest and dissent under the guise of austerity
However, by doing this, Judge Wright has done something for the campaign that we could never have done ourselves – she has martyred us. Although this in itself is problematic, along with being called ‘heroes’ and compared to the suffragettes and Chartists, that is a whole other can of worms for another time. For now, I’ll happily be a Heathrow hooligan.
We have all been asked whether we would do it again, and I think the answer is the same. We all stand by what we did – doing what we could to fight climate change in the face of considerable adversity and against the will of the rich and powerful, using the only resources we had available to us – ourselves. The #Heathrow13 may be the first, but we will certainly not be the last. As long as airport expansion is on the table, anywhere, Plane Stupid will be there. We’re in it for the long haul.
Featured image © Plane Stupid