No money for Vestas, but Mandelson bails out Airbus

I'm speechless: Mandelson, Prince of Darkness and proud wearer of custard, has just offered Airbus £340 million to keep producing planes. Meanwhile Vestas has closed and 400 hundred green jobs have been lost. Is anyone else getting angry?

I'm finding it quite hard to write anything intelligent or rational about this. I don't want to see 1,200 people who work for Airbus out of work. But I also know that there are hundreds of people on the Isle of Wight who are unemployed because this Government refused to support the only windfarm manufacturer in the UK - and that one of those companies tackles climate change, while the other makes it worse.

Tackling climate change means making tough decisions. Given a choice, this Government and the vested interests it represents will make the wrong decision every time. Mandelson, and everything he represents, has no place in the world we want to build. We need to kick him, and his crony mates, as far from power as we can (and an extra punt for good measure).

While single-issue campaigning is fantastic at exposing a problem, it can't give the systemic critique we so desperately need right now. As hard as we try, Plane Stupid can't do much about the banking sector, labour rights or the theft of resources from the developing world. That's why we need broader campaigns which can show how capitalism and the systems which support make our lives a misery - and help us take action against it.

Conveniently there's loads you can do over the next fortnight if you're as worked up as I am. There's the Climate Camp Cymru this weekend, and the Earth First! Summer Gathering next week, both of which offer workshops, skill-sharing and camp fire chats about how we get out of this mess. Then the Camp for Climate Action kicks off, swooping on a secret location somewhere in the M25 for a very long weekend of naughtiness. Get busy!

High speed rail to wipe out domestic flights


Lord Adonis has unveiled a plan which has O'Leary and others apoplectic: he wants to wipe out the market for domestic flights in the UK by expanding the high speed rail network. While the Government has often hinted that High Speed 2 (the link between London, Heathrow and the north) would steal some market share, they're only now admitting that fast trains = no planes - domestically, if not internationally.

Across Europe, intercity flights have been decimated by the growth in high speed rail. In December 2007 the Spanish Government opened new lines connecting Madrid to Valladolid and to Málaga. Aberlado Carrillo, the director general of the state rail operator Renfe's high-speed service, described the success of these two lines as "unprecedented and well ahead of what we expected. Traffic has doubled on the Málaga line, and grown by 75% on the Valladolid line."

But don't hold your breath too tightly. Adonis and others were keen to explain that we'd still have to expand all the airports, to cater for predicted growth in demand (which is generated by the expansion, but don't let that spoil anything). I do wish the Government would wake up to the fact that expansion isn't happening and, while we're at it, stop pretending it's ok for the Environment Secretary to support regional airport expansion.

Michael O'Leary, the industry's rent-a-clown, was wheeled out to perform tricks. He's unhappy because he won't make any money if we're not all sitting on his horrid little planes. He doesn't believe in climate change, so finds the Transport Secretary justifying modal shift on eco-grounds a tad irritating. Sorry Michael, now you know how we feel everytime your smug face pops up on the telly crying about Greedy Gordon's Tax on Fun or whatever it is you complain about. No more Ryanair or Flybe is a good thing.

Vestas: towards a just transition


Many Plane Stupid activists have been down to the Isle of Wight to show our support and admiration for the Vesta's workers. This community has dared to take back some control of their futures away their bosses and from politicians too blind to see the symbolism of a wind turbine factory closing while promising Apollonian efforts to tackle climate change.

Contrast that with the aviation industry. New runways and promises of new jobs in the aviation sector look empty in a world of peak oil and a rapidly changing climate. The workers of Heathrow, Stansted, British Airways, Ryanair and the rest would do well to learn a lesson from this island community. When the dying Heathrow dream is finally abandoned they'll be left sitting on the cold tarmac whilst the bosses and their political cronies fly off with the last of the liquidated assets. The only solution is to wrestle back their fates and demand a just transition to a sustainable future.

Act now to demand a more sustainable future. Cabin crew should refuse to serve another packet of peanuts until there are enough jobs building windfarms and insulating lofts. Baggage handlers must not pack another plane until they're taught about the orchards and fields and helped to find jobs which support and strengthen local communties. We have to stop waving through development which will wreck the environment but offer up a couple of unsustainable shift jobs on minimum wage.

The transition to a low carbon economy can be brutal or it can be fair, but capital and capitalists will not adopt a system which distributes the most pain to those who can afford to pay it unless we force them. A just transition has to be fought for. When workers in the fossil fuels industries look to Vestas and start standing up for their futures then Plane Stupid would be proud to stand there with them. On Tuesday the courts will try to evict the Vestas workers. We'll be there to stop them.

But I want a holiday...


It's a dilemma we all face now and then. I want a holiday and I don’t fancy Skegness. I want sun, sea and sex. I might even settle for two out of the three. Or just the sex…..if the person’s right. But not in Skegness.

This year three places take my fancy. Rome and then on to the Italian coast. A week exploring the delights of old Prague. Or a leisurely holiday in Austria. I’ve checked out the flights to Rome, Prague and Vienna. Even allowing for the hidden charges added by the likes of Ryanair, I can still get a bargain if I book in good time.

But then I start to read about what flying is doing to the planet. It is the fastest-growing source of CO2 emissions. In the UK it accounts for 13% of our greenhouse gas impact, if you include what is known as radiative forcing. That’s a lot from one industry - even if it does take me on holiday.

I check out Rome and Prague. I discover that a train would have to travel from London to Madras and back before polluting the air as much as a 747’s return flight to Prague and a tourist could drive around Rome on a scooter non-stop for more than six months and still produce fewer emissions than a flight from London. Not good!

I check out the trains. I go to The Man in Seat 61. I am surprised how quick the journey times actually are. I can leave London early afternoon and be in Rome, Prague or Vienna in time for breakfast the next morning. The cost is more of a problem: anything from £120 return to Rome to about £180 to Prague or Vienna.

But what does strike me is that, potentially, rail is an alternative for many flights to Europe. Where fast and reasonably affordable rail services have been introduced, people have switched from plane to train in sizeable numbers. For example, when the train journey between Paris and Brussels was reduced to about an hour, the air service ceased. Or take the Paris-Marseille route. Rail held only 22% of the air-rail market before TGV Mediterranean went into service (2001), but in four years that market share rose to 65% and in 2006 it was 69%.

Rail can provide an alternative for many air trips. The evidence shows that when journey times are no more than about 3½ - 4 hours, people like the train. That covers about 500 kilometres, the distance from London to the Scottish border. And the hard fact of the matter is that around 45% of air trips within Europe are 500 kilometres or less. But my exploration of The Man in Seat 61 shows that even for much longer distances trains become viable alternatives.

Life has changed a bit now that I’ve decided to avoid flying whenever I can. It means that quick weekend breaks to Bucharest, Belgrade or Budapest are off the agenda. But, realistically, they didn’t happen much anyway because I lacked the time and money. It also means I’ve learnt - or re-learnt – that the enjoyment of getting there is part of the holiday, be it a scenic train journey down the Rhine or a coffee in one of Europe’s splendid rail stations. I’ve even begun to explore some of the forgotten corners of the UK.

I admit that if I could afford to go to Australia, America or the Far East, flying might be the only option, but for the kind of holidays that are realistic for me – and most people – on a regular basis, the train, and sometimes the coach or ferry, is a real alternative. Even when the destination is not Skegness.

What's wrong with biofuels?

Environmentalists are often accused of being a little hard to please. Along comes this great techno fix and we stubbornly question its credentials. We start mumbling about corporate greenwash and false solutions, and ask who stands to benefit. Is the latest solution intended to prevent climate change or to line the pockets of corporate bastards?

Virgin's ventures into biofuels are a great example of this dilemma. The government told us that aviation can’t expand unless it miraculously becomes sustainable - so last year Virgin launched a spectacular stunt, flying from London to Paris on a plane which used 5% biofuels. It was widely hailed by the press as a revolution in the skies; one which would solve climate change and doubtless wipe out jet lag as well. But there are several reasons why Virgin's pilot will never be rolled out widely.

Not only do most of them require more carbon to produce than oil based products, but agrofuels have a catastrophic impact on the ecosystems we rely on to absorb greenhouse gas emissions. The need to grow fuel has exascerbated the already widespread deforestation of the world's ancient woodlands as greedy profiteers send in the bulldozers. As more land is taken from long-established forests and turned over to fuel mono-crops, the earth becomes less able to turn CO2 into oxygen. This is very bad news indeed.

It's not just the planet which is being killed by agrofuels: people around the world are being forced off their land so that western agrobusinesses can grow petrol-plants. Widespread commercial biofuel production has turned land which should be used to grow food used for fuel production and indigenous people driven off the land into extinction. The impact of this is stark: every year an estimated 100 million people die as a result of the rapid introduction of biofuels around the globe. As the UN recognised, agrofuels are the driving force behind last year's food crisis.

Faced with this, Virgin conceded that first-generation biofuels may not be the final solution, but have conveniently found the answer: ‘second-generation’ biofuels. These are sold as a refined and scientific solution to the failings of first-gen agrofuels, but with a great caveat: even if they don’t work, "the history of aviation is full of people doing the impossible".

Unfortunately second generation biofuels have exactly the same destructive impact as the first generation. First there's the issue of supply: the plane needed 150,000 coconouts to fly from London to Paris, despite being only 5% agrofuel. Imagine the amount of land needed to fuel all the planes departing Heathrow.

Aviation may be full of people "doing the impossible", but there are some things which simply can't be done. In 2003, Sir David King, then chief scientist for the Labour government, stated that there was no green alternative to aviation fuel. There still isn't. Rolling out a full programme of biofuel aircraft would lead to deforestation, food shortages and millions of climate refugees. Ask yourself: are you willing to give up eating to fly to Spain?

Support for taxes on flights keeps growing

Air ship

It finally seems like we might just be getting through to people - maybe even the hard-working British families the aviation industry likes to blame for their plans to turn Britain into Airstrip One. According to the 25th British Social Attitudes Report, 70% of Brits now agree "that air travel has a serious effect on climate change." This may not strike readers of our website as an especially mind-blowing revelation - but it's worth remembering that only 83% of Brits currently agree that bears shit in the woods.

Of perhaps greater significance is the news that "The proportion who agree that people should be able to travel by plane 'as much as they like' is 63%, down from 78% in 2003. When asked the same question but with the extra words 'even if it harms the environment', agreement falls from 63% to 19%."

Surprise, surprise: businesses dont care about climate change


BP Greenwash

2008 is the year of greenwash. After years of denying climate change was real, or paying people to pretend that CO2 emissions weren't causing temperature rises, big business finally woke up to the fact that people aren't that keen on exploitation of the planet for material gain. Everyone, from Ariel ('wash at 30 degrees') to BP ('we're Beyond Petroleum. Please don't mention the Alaskan Tar Sands') was getting in on the act, with green adverts and strategies and targets and travel plans.

As ever there was just one teeny-weeny problem: for all their green plans, most businesses just make token gestures on climate change. Take flying: a survey out today by Barclaycard showed that although many businesses had green travel plans which discouraged flying, just 1% of the 3,000 business people interviewed thought they applied to them. The other 99% were obviously far too important not to fly wherever and whenever they liked.

Who will pay the carbon price?


Earth for sale

Taken a short-haul flight recently? What about a long-haul trip? If you have, you'll have paid Air Passenger Duty, which recently rose a little bit (roughly to where it was in the 2000 Budget, before then-Chancellor Gordon Brown decided to cut it to encourage more people to fly). According to the Daily Telegraph, the Government has "admitted" that the cost of APD paid by passengers outweighs the cost of the emitted carbon by £100 million.

This is the culmination of monetisation, a dangerous trend that sits at the heart of the emissions trading scheme, the Kyoto Protocol and pretty much every market-driven solution to rising CO2 emissions. Monetisation is the principle that things without economic value - such as an eco-system, ancient woodland or a Norman church - can be given a value. From that it follows that if business and Government damages or destroys this invaluable thing, they can merely pay its value for doing so - always less than the profit made from the damage or destruction.

As anyone who has ever had a road or runway built through their community, seen a beauty spot ruined by the roar of jet aircraft overhead or watched rising sea levels wipe out their home knows, there are some things you cannot put a price on. How can you put a value on the right to breathe clean air, to eat unpolluted food, to live without fear of global climate breakdown? Some things simply cannot be bought and sold, and we must recognise that those who would put a price on life do so to make it easier for them to take it from us.

Ask Leo: what's wrong with the Emissions Trading Scheme?


The EU has finally agreed to include aviation emissions in the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). This might look like good news - after all, it is the first and only international emissions agreement to include air transport, and indeed the only policy measure the British government has on the table to address aviation's role in causing climate change. But don't get too excited just yet - because this measure is not actually intended to reduce aviation emissions.

Instead, it is expressly intended to allow them to continue to rise, by enabling airlines to purchase credits under the scheme from other sectors who have successfully reduced their own emissions, or worse, from 'accredited' offsetting schemes in far-off lands such as China. But the extra warming impact of aviation emissions over ground-based CO2 emissions is unaccounted for in the plan. Which means that permits to pollute that are sold to airlines by, for instance, power companies, will actually lead to 2 to 5 times more global warming than if the power companies had never reduced their emissions in the first place. MEPs had proposed a way to factor this in to the scheme, but, somewhat unsurprisingly, the aviation lobby successfully got that thrown out by the Commission.

The dangers of peak oil


Peak oil

The longer you campaign on transport issues, the more you find yourself tiptoeing around the ugly face of peak oil. Hailed by advocates as the best thing since the bread slicer, peak oil is the point at which oil supply peaks and begins to taper off, pushing prices higher and higher until economic forces demand a shift to alternative energy sources.

This might sound like great news to those campaigning against the fossil fuels economy, but it’s a poisoned chalice for a number of reasons. Firstly, rising oil prices make more polluting sources of energy (such as coal) very attractive – well before green energy like solar or wind becomes economically viable. Extracting oil from tar sands – incredibly ecologically destructive – is uneconomical when prices are low, but as they climb higher then wholesale investment becomes very attractive indeed.