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Climate activists held the largest anti-airport protest in British history. Expect more worldwide.

The global anti-airport movement has been growing for 20 years. Here’s what’s behind it.

The climate protest group Extinction Rebellion blocks traffic in Richmond, B.C., on Oct. 25 as supporters protest the expansion of Vancouver International Airport. Such protests are taking place worldwide. (Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters)

Earlier this month, U.K. climate activists demonstrated against the planned expansion of 10 airports in what was the largest anti-airport protest in British history. The U.K. government had recently rejected one of its own agencies’ scientific advice, which said that expanding airports in London, Glasgow, Southampton and elsewhere would conflict with the government’s net-zero climate goals. In the report, titled “Net Zero: Principles for Successful Behaviour Change Initiatives,” the agency recommended reducing demand for high-carbon activities such as air transport.

U.K. protesters aren’t alone. Over the past couple of decades, there’s been a worldwide increase in local anti-airport movements, motivated both by global climate concerns and by local worries about issues such as water pollution and displacing poor or minority communities. They’re likely to continue. Here’s why.

Building or expanding airports would undermine U.K. climate leadership

In April, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government enacted the world’s most ambitious climate-change targets, adding to laws passed since 2019 committing the country to net-zero emissions by 2050.

But the government was also pursuing goals at odds with the net-zero targets, including plans to expand airports. In October, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy posted on its website a document detailing the government’s Net Zero Strategy alongside a report of the Behavioural Insights Team, a government research unit, recommending curbing such expansion and aviation subsidies.

Climate activist groups such as AirportWatch and local anti-airport groups such as the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise attacked the expansion plans. These groups have opposed airport expansion not only because “the Climate Crisis means we must all fly less,” as one group of activists put it, but also because larger airports generate more air, water and noise pollution at the local level. To dampen the criticism, the government deleted the document from its website within a few hours. That prompted the protests.

Available research largely supports the expansion critics: Increased plane travel, when supported by building new or larger airports, does increase greenhouse gas emissions. In fairness, Johnson’s government did not deny this. Rather, a government spokesperson said, “This was an academic research paper, not government policy. We have no plans whatsoever to dictate consumer behavior in this way.”

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Resistance to airports has a long history

Anti-airport movements date to the 1960s, when local communities created associations to oppose a new airport near Tokyo and in the French village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes near Nantes. Despite the Japanese movement, Narita International Airport was inaugurated in 1978 — but opponents are resisting its expansion today. The French movement succeeded. After six decades of anti-airport struggle, French President Emmanuel Macron abandoned the project in 2018.

Since then, largely inspired by these two struggles, other local movements to block airport development have sprung up around the globe. For instance, since 2015, communities in Jeju, what is known as South Korea’s “Island of Peace,” have opposed the government’s plan to construct a second airport — an air force base — on the island, objecting that it would kick people off farmland, destroy Indigenous communities’ sacred sites and militarize the region.

In the United States, local communities and climate activists in California, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico and Hawaii have opposed new airport projects as well. Residents of New Haven, for instance, have tried to block the expansion of Tweed Airport over concerns such as noise, increased traffic and air pollution.

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Defenders of airports say they deliver big benefits

Those who support expanding air travel say communities must consider economic benefits along with environmental costs. Boosters like the International Civil Aviation Organization argue that airports create jobs, increase tourism and boost international trade within regions.

Johnson’s Conservative Party has sought to reconcile social and environmental concerns with economic benefits. In the party’s manifesto, published ahead of the December 2019 general election, the government reiterated that it supported expanding London’s Heathrow Airport, as long as the project met “air quality and noise obligations” and “the business case is realistic.” At a news conference in April, Johnson argued that “aviation and a green future are not mutually exclusive,” as aviation technology changes.

British opponents argue that the government cannot square this with its own stated aim of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. “Net-zero emissions” means, in the government’s own words, that “any emissions would be balanced by schemes to offset an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, such as planting trees or using technology like carbon capture and storage.”

Those opponents include, for instance, Stay Grounded, a network of climate activists around the world fighting to reduce air travel, including by releasing research showing its harmful effects. Stay Grounded has released a map and case studies that it says show how land expropriation for airport-related projects hurts communities, leading to displacement and loss of livelihood for groups that depend on fishing, hunting or farming. Looking at airport projects around the world, the group reports that these tend to cause biodiversity loss, soil erosion and drought in the regions where they are located. It claims that government forces have intimidated and harassed people who oppose airport projects.

Some of these problems can be mitigated, research suggests. Airports’ effects on their surrounding ecosystems and aircraft noise pollution can both be reduced. Airport defenders suggest that emissions, too, could be reduced through fuel-efficiency improvements, biofuels and electric-powered airplanes — all of which would require major advances in aviation technology, however. Until those arrive, the only way to reduce airplane emissions is to reduce air traffic.

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Airport protests are here to stay

Anti-airport activists tend to be motivated both by global concerns about climate change and by local concerns specific to their communities, whether forest loss in Nepal or threats to Indigenous communities in Mexico. This combination of local concerns with global focus may help explain why these protest movements endure. For instance, the movement against the Narita International Airport expansion has been active for almost five decades. Opponents of expanding London’s Heathrow have been battling for almost two decades. Expect more anti-airport movements in the years — and decades — to come.

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Eraldo Souza dos Santos (@esdsantos) is a lecturer in global history at the University of Potsdam who specializes in the history and politics of social movements.

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