London’s airport conundrum underlines our consumption addiction

Heathrow airport – along with its near-London alternatives – was last week’s favourite running news story. Infamously, Heathrow is running at 99% runway capacity and a change in strategy is required urgently. As Friday’s deadline for submissions to the Davies Commission approached, the Mayor of London, Heathrow itself and then Stansted took turns to trumpet their ideas for expanding the capital’s airport capabilities, before environmental and business interest groups waded in with enough comments to fill column inches day after day.


Already Europe’s largest airport, Heathrow itself outlined three potential options for building a third runway. Boris Johnson called any plan to expand Heathrow “quite simply crackers”, claiming it would exacerbate the current problems of proximity to west London and noise pollution. The mayor’s plan to ‘buy out’ Heathrow for around £15 billion and create a new hub either on the Isle of Grain in the Thames estuary, offshore in the estuary or at an expanded Stansted sounds expensively ambitious. Yet, it feels a little like picking up one environmental eyesore and planting a louder, busier twin somewhere else.  Then there are Boris’ potential political motivations (possible voters living below Heathrow’s flight paths would be delighted with his plan for a new garden city). To this heady mix of intrigue, Stansted airport added a proposal for a second runway at its Essex site.

Most of the critical commentary last week concentrated on noise pollution and carbon emissions. Airports might attract investment, transport links and business potential, but even the least NIMBY-ish Brit would not want Europe’s busiest aeroplane hub springing up a few miles from their quiet rural home.

The carbon question is intriguing. In the Guardian, Damian Carrington and a subsequent editorial argued similarly that vast capital investment in this dramatic increase in airport capacity would merely lock the UK into a carbon-intensive future that we and the planet cannot afford.  Earlier this year, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) suggested that by 2050 the carbon intensity of flights should improve by roughly 35%, meaning demand growth of 60% on 2005 levels will lead to no increase in aviations emissions. There’s a lot of conditionals in their projections and, as the Guardian pointed out, it’s difficult to see how they can be realised. The UK is committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, but right now we’re discussing billions of pounds worth of carbon-intensive investment. That’s putting an awful lot of pressure on creating those necessary efficiencies.

As tough as the carbon question is, what strikes me most about the Heathrow debate is how difficult it is to break our habit of continually increasing demand. The Heathrow third runway plan hopes to increase the number of flights at the airport from 480,000 to 740,000 per year. We don’t have precise figures for the other scenarios, but, as already noted, the CCC are predicting a substantial increase in demand for flights over the next few decades, regardless of where they will take off and land.

Unless we can begin using a significantly cleaner fleet of aircraft incredibly soon, the only other option is to reduce how much we fly. Dr Caroline Lucas called for exactly this when she appeared on the BBC’s Daily Politics, claiming we should be privileging Skype and railways over carbon-hungry budget flights. It’s a lovely, warm, green idea, but cold-hearted individualistic consumers don’t like it. We like jetting off on holidays for under £100 and, if we had more money and time, I’m sure we’d love to do more of it.

We should really eat less meat. Unfortunately, it’s delicious and we’re used to tucking into a big, meat-based meal at least once a day. Freed from financial constraint, we’d probably eat more as well. We should really drive less. Unfortunately, cars are a quick and comfortable means of transportation and we don’t want to cut back on how much we get around.


Perhaps the reason it is so hard to cut back is that the industrial world which we gladly inhabit has been, since its conception, reliant on ever-increasing consumption. There’s a wealth of historical literature on the ‘consumer revolution’ that occurred alongside the famous eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial one. One relatively recent theory demonstrates the relationship clearly. Dutch historian Jan De Vries has written extensively on his idea of an “industrious revolution” in which households re-allocated their labour resources, setting women and children to work, to expand their collective purchasing power in order to buy more and better quality consumer goods for the home. Similarly, would Manchester have become Cottonopolis by 1850 without a high demand for cotton textile goods?

Industrial society is partly based on wanting more, working harder, buying more and wanting more again. As a result, asking consumers to cut back on a product they have coveted – be that energy, food or cheap flights – is to commence a losing battle.

The expansion of Heathrow is, on the surface, a debate about the relative merits and demerits of locations for an unsightly carbon-hungry airport. Beyond that, it reveals just how deeply the assumption that we will only continue to consume more and more is ingrained in our consciousness.


3 responses to “London’s airport conundrum underlines our consumption addiction

  1. Are you arguing against growth? Or pondering whether we should focus on it? Either way there are mountains of evidence suggesting our lives are better for increased growth. If you wish to argue against such assertions I think it would be prudent to set write an article outlining that point in its entirety rather than attempt to embed it into another argument. Either way, the weight of literature argues strongly against your implication.

    Secondly, I think you misinterpret the effect of expanding Heathrow. If it is not expanded other airports will become European hubs. Resisting expansion will NOT reduce air travel which is set to grow as you pointed out. Expanding Heathrow will merely allow the UK to reap more of the gains of such growth. To me this renders the carbon point rather moot.

    Regardless, even if this should be considered, it should be done so on the relative costs and benefits of air travel including, but not limited to, the external effects such as noise and carbon emissions. The reduction of greenhouse emissions by 80% should be considered on a grand scale not on every single decision to increase growth that may have some negative externalities. I believe there is some cliche about woods and trees that is oft used in such circumstances.

    • Hi Rachel, thanks for reading and reacting.

      I’m not arguing against growth or any particular focus on it. Growth makes us wealthier, healthier and happier and has done since it began to skyrocket from the mid-eighteenth century. Similarly, on the expansion of Heathrow, I agree with you that it is vital in order to keep the UK and London competitive as an international air hub.

      My overarching aim in this piece was to demonstrate that the Heathrow debate can open a window onto how difficult (and almost impossible) it is to ask people to cut back on consumption when they’ve been doing it increasingly for so long. That’s what the ‘carbon lock in’ and the ‘cut back on flying’ proponents seem to be calling for. Rather than my take on whether or not we should expand London’s airport capacity (for what it’s worth, I think it’s essential), I hoped to provide another angle, exploring what it might reveal about one facet of industrial society.

      Just to touch briefly on the greenhouse gas question, I agree that the 80% should absolutely be taken in its entirety. The Committee on Climate Change have also projected that aviation emissions will account for around 25% of the UK’s permitted greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 ( In 2011, the industry only accounted for around 6% of our emissions. Clearly we will be cutting back on emissions throughout the economy, but aviation’s increased relative importance does place an onus on the industry to reduce its carbon intensity quickly and dramatically.

      I’d love to hear your further thoughts.

      Thanks once again,


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