Bristol airport vote: A small win in our battle against climate change

In this last decade of serious climate action, nature should be prioritised over economic growth if we want to survive

By Ranjan Panda
Published: Friday 13 March 2020
Bristol Airport. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Bristol Airport. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Bristol Airport. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Surprising as it may sound, bats and birds have just won a battle over an airport. As the world grapples with a state of climate emergency and the current model of growth is being growingly challenged worldwide, councillors of the North Somerset council in the UK have rejected the expansion plan of the Bristol airport.

Extra parking space for thousands of more cars, extension of passenger terminus and plane taxi ways, major changes to the roads around the airport and other works that the expansion would have permitted at the cost of a greenbelt was being opposed by people concerned with the environment. 

According to reports, the councillors who voted against this expansion after a four-and-half hour-long meeting, actually became the voice of more than 8,000 people who had been protesting against this extension plan. 

That’s actually a rare thing to happen at a time when humans want to expand their transport network to run fast, and slowing down such growth is largely considered to be a regressive move, at least from a conventional point of view. 

If we consider the same from an ecological conservation lens, this is a historic vote for sustainability of civilisations on earth, a much needed breather for Mother Earth. People who supported the vote, said it was a step towards fighting climate change. 

The airport expansion would have led to an increase in health problems of people around the location and would also have harmed precious colonies of bats and birdlife.

Officials, whose nod for the project was stuck down by the councillors, feared the loss due to this decision would be to the tune of £1.4 billion over a decade. That’s historic in many senses.

Planet versus profit

It was a clear case of the planet winning over profit of humans and comes at a time when the earth experienced its hottest January in recorded history. The climate crisis we are in, has seriously challenged us to rethink the way humans are growing, necessarily at the cost of ecology and all other species.

And that means our capacity to adapt to the catastrophic changes is shrinking by the day. In fact, a just-published report has estimated that UK would the third-worst hit country by loss of nature.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that by 2050, loss of nature will wipe £368 billion a year off global economic growth. The UK alone will face a £16-billion loss per year. 

Biodiversity loss

So for planners like the ones who planned the airport expansion and understand only the language of business and profit, it is time to pause and read the huge warnings on the wall.

A report Nature Risk Rising released at the World Economic Forum this year, says that economic value generation worth $44 trillion — over half the world’s total GDP — is moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services and, as a result, is exposed to risks from nature loss.

It is now amply clear that economic growth alone cannot drive our progress. A recently released United Nations report said biodiversity, and the benefits it provides, is fundamental to human wellbeing and a healthy planet.

However, our actions have made a million of the world's 8 million species face extinction — many within decades. As scientists have already warned, we are already in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, the first one to be caused by humans. The unprecedented rate at which species extinction is happening is alarming.

Growth and climate change

The UN has said in a 2019 report that shrinking habitats, exploitation of natural resources, climate change and pollution are the main causes of this. In fact, it has warned that the global rate of species extinction is at least tens of hundreds of times higher than it has been on average over the past 10 million years.

The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report has listed biodiversity loss as one of the top five risks in terms of likelihood and impact in the next 10 years. Nature loss is a fat-tail risk like the 2008 asset-price bubble: It cannot be seen with a linear world view. But once triggered, can have far greater than average implications, says this report. 

The vote against the expansion of Bristol airport should be seen as a small win in our battle against climate change.

Growth can be slowed down till we have rejuvenated our natural resources to an extent that can sustain our growth. However, in this defining decade, which is being considered as the last decade of serious climate action if we want to survive, nature should be prioritised over economic growth.

Take the case of airports alone. If our climate actions continue to remain slow, at least 80 airports worldwide could go underwater due to sea rise by 2100.  Even if we are able to limit our emissions to 2 degree Celsius, at least 44 airports would face this fate. The message is clear. Vote for nature!

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