Threat of unprecedented jail sentence for Heathrow 13 helps amplify protest

“No-one seems to be worried about the impact Heathrow is already causing, just the impact of an extra runway,” Rob Basto from Reigate said to me, as we discussed his forthcoming trial. Read this blog by Jonathan Essex, South East Region Chair.

Now he could face prison when he appears in court on February 24th alongside 12 other campaigners who laid down on Heathrow Airport's northern runway in July last year.

In occupying the runway at Heathrow, the ‘Heathrow 13’ were calling for action on the biggest challenge we face today: climate change. Airport expansion is being proposed as a solution to what is actually a fictitious problem. We’re told that we have an airport capacity crisis, but the fact is that we don’t.[1] Meanwhile, this ‘solution’ actively hinders our ability to curb our emissions and solve the real climate challenge we face.


Aviation’s climate impact

The scale of aviation's climate impact is Heathrow and Gatwick's dirty big secret, and the actions of campaigners such as the Heathrow 13 draw our attention to this. Heathrow emits 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year[2], set to increase massively if a third runway is built there. Heathrow and Gatwick's existing operations are not just responsible for  some of the world's 5.5 million air pollution deaths each year, but also the wider-reaching and potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change, which researchers have predicted could be in the order of 250 deaths per year from Heathrow's operations alone[3].


The current prediction is that the Heathrow 13, whose act of civil and peaceful disobedience delayed 22 flights, will go to jail for their actions. Compare this to the consequences many corporations have faced for actions with incomparably graver consequences, and we start to see the contradictions in our justice system. Twenty years ago the Bhopal disaster led to some 3000 deaths, but the company responsible, Union Carbide, were fined just over $10,000. Similarly, the criminal charges against BP bosses involved in the Deepwater Horizon disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico were dropped, even though 11 people died. The Heathrow 13's protest wasn't a selfish act with criminal intent, as the judge recognised. They were trying to save lives.


If the carbon emissions of Britons taking international flights were counted up and ranked alongside the carbon emissions of entire countries,[4] our flights would rank as the 72nd largest global emitter, ranked between Ireland and New Zealand. But while the UK plans significant carbon reductions by 2030,[5] aviation emissions are planned to exceed their budget by between 35-75% by 2030, the year that the government pledges that a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick would be completed[6].


Managing Demand


Instead of debating how we will provide additional capacity for the inevitable expansion of aviation from 2030 onwards, we need to start managing demand down now, to deal with the climate change, which requires us not to build any new runway in the future. Last year, a proposal to reduce demand in a fair way – the idea of frequent flyer levy[7] - was launched. Research behind the proposal shows that just 15% of the UK population take 70% of flights, while over half of us did not  fly overseas at all in 2013. The Levy would help to manage aviation demand through a progressive tax, which would replace air passenger duty. Those taking one flight per year would be exempt from the tax, but for those who book subsequent flights, the tax would increase with every journey. Our parliament should be debating this proposal, to provide solutions to manage the demand of aviation, not whether to expand Heathrow or Gatwick with a new runway.


An unprecedented case


It was a few days after the July protest that I heard that my friend Rob was one of the '13'. This mild mannered 68 year old might now face the ultimate sanction available under UK law – prison – for trying to save lives.


Few now remember that Nelson Mandela and his fellow protesters were convicted and imprisoned for sabotage. Their legacy is that their protest changed everything – it ultimately ended apartheid. What will we remember about the first environmental protestors to face jail for aggravated trespass?


The actions of Rob, Danielle, Ella, Mel, Kara, Alistair, Graham, Edward, Sheila, Sam, Cameron and Rebecca need to give us the courage to stop choosing 'what I want' without first making politics real – and collectively making the hard but life affirming choices that make the world better and fairer for us all.


That is why I will join them on February 24th at Willesden Magistrates Court. Rob Basto says, “The case is a catalyst for getting the message out that we need stop expanding aviation in the UK, not propose to build new runways.” That requires action now - to call time not just on the sentences of the Heathrow 13 but on aviation's relentless expansion. Please join me in making that the legacy of this landmark protest.



[3]The report by the Climate Vulnerability Forum (2012, funded by 20 countries - suggests one climate death/85ktCO2 which suggests UK aviation equates to around 500 deaths/year, and Heathrow airport 265 deaths/year.  However since this report was written the figure for air pollution has been quadrupled by the WHO. It is likely that this figure is conservative.

[4]Currently aviation is ranked as the 14th largest country in the world and shipping 8th as neither aviation or shipping were included in the climate agreement secured at Paris in 2015 (see

[5] The UK plans a 60% cut in carbon emissions by 2030 (which must now include aviation) –

[6] The government responded to the airport commission confirming that it did intend to give permission for another runway at Heathrow or Gatwick but five years later that the original date proposed of 2025. (

[7] 'Managing Air Passenger Demand with a Frequent Flyer Levy, published by the New Economics Foundation –

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