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Ella Gilbert

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it

By Ali Tamlit - Red Pepper, October 26, 2017

Today is the 30th birthday of the opening of London City Airport – but there isn’t much to celebrate. Since the airport’s opening in 1987, carbon dioxide levels have increased from 351 parts per million (ppm), around a ‘safe’ level in terms of climate change, to a dangerously high 409 ppm this year.

Politically, discussions around sustainability and climate change were just getting started then, and there was hope that world leaders might find a solution for us. This was 5 years before the landmark 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Now, two years on from the 2015 Paris climate agreement – an agreement that on the surface sets an ambitious target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees – there is little sign of action from any government. Top NASA scientist James Hansen described it as ‘worthless words’ with ‘no action’.

While officials prevaricate, we are increasingly seeing the devastating effects of climate change in more frequent extreme weather events: think of Hurricane Irma which hit the Caribbean last month, or the extreme flooding in Bangladesh, which left a third of the country under water.

But a lot of other things have changed since 1987. Firstly, we’ve learned as people and as a movement that although these numbers matter – parts per million and degrees centigrade – that’s not what climate change is actually about. Very recently, thanks largely to the action at London City Airport by BLMUK, the narrative that the ‘climate crisis is a racist crisis’ has been thrust into the mainstream.

Although extreme weather events are increasing, it’s important to examine who is being affected and who is causing it. London City Airport was a perfect target to highlight this argument. The UK has emitted the most CO2 cumulatively per capita since the industrial revolution, has built its wealth on colonialism and now is one of the centres of global capitalism that continues to extract resources and wealth from countries in the global South. All of this while globally 7 out of 10 of the countries most affected by climate change are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Reflections on Sentencing

By The Heathrow 13 - Plane Stupid, February 29, 2016

On the 24th of February, we - the Heathrow 13 - were sentenced to 6 weeks in prison, suspended for 12 months, with an additional 120 to 180 hours community service on top. Whilst we are happy to not be in prison right now, this is far from a complete victory.

As our barrister  QC Kirsty Brimelow, so eloquently argued, there is a long tradition of direct action in the UK, and a convention for sentencing within the legal system. In fact Lord Hoffman, in an influential ruling, went as far as to say that it is the mark of a civilised society to accommodate this, and that the legal convention is for sentences such as a conditional discharge or community service. In this light, our barristers argued that our action clearly did not cross the custodial threshold – i.e. our sentence should not be imprisonment, immediate or suspended. The fact that Judge Wright chose to give us a suspended sentence marks a shift in the way protesters are treated, going against the normal convention. 

Experts have suggested that if magistrates impose custody for minor offences, that produces an incentive for activists to commit more serious offences. This is because more serious crimes are dealt with by a jury, who are more likely to be understanding of the issues. Whilst more radical actions are welcome, and in fact are necessary to tackle the scale of climate change, repression from the judicial system is not.

As we went into court on the 24th, all of us were prepared for the possibility for prison. We all experienced a rollercoaster of emotions, from fear and stress to defiance and pride. The support and love we were shown by family, friends and the wider movement made us feel all the more ready to deal with a potential prison sentence. Had we gone to prison, we would have depended on this support network around us. We all feel so grateful for this.

Yet, we should reflect on this as a form of privilege. There are over 85,000 people in prison in the UK, not including immigration detention centres, secure children's homes or those detained under the Mental Health Act. Those imprisoned are disproportionately from poor, minority backgrounds and are likely to have suffered various forms of abuse in their lives. Vulnerable people are the ones being targeted by the judicial system. These people are highly unlikely to be able to gain the same kind of support a high profile privileged group such as ours could.

Why I've no regrets about going to prison for shutting down Heathrow airport

By Ella Gilbert MSc - Mashable, February 23, 2016

Editors Note: Ella Gilbert MSc (as well as several other members of the #Heathrow13) are dues paying members of the IWW. for more details about the struggle, please visit Plane Stupid.

Update from the Guardian:

Six women and seven men have avoided jail for trespassing at Heathrow, following a protest against the possible expansion of the airport.

The activists, dubbed the Heathrow 13, were given sentences of six weeks suspended for 12 months, meaning they would not have to go to prison immediately.

They had been found guilty in January of aggravated trespass and entering a security-restricted area of an aerodrome. They had been warned by district judge Deborah Wright to expect a custodial sentence.

Read more...

For more on the sentencing of the Heathrow 13, see also:

LONDON — Today I’ve been packing my bag for prison.

That sentence never gets less weird. It’s a task that most people will never have to do, or even think about doing, so it’s been a learning curve. Take this for example: you can’t take black clothes into prison. This is a serious problem for someone whose entire wardrobe is black.

If you’re wondering why I’m having to do this, here’s why: on Wednesday, myself and 12 others from direct action network Plane Stupid will be sentenced to “almost inevitable” (in the words of the judge) custodial sentences for our part in a direct action that happened last year.

In July, the #Heathrow13 occupied one of Heathrow’s runways for six hours: the longest airport occupation in the UK to date, and the most high profile. We managed to stop 25 planes and in so doing prevented the emission of hundreds, if not thousands, of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Aircraft are hugely polluting machines. They spew out air pollutants like particulate matter and nitrogen oxides that cause serious health effects for wildlife and for people living in the local area, as well as climate-damaging greenhouse gases. I’m sure I don’t need to explain that greenhouse gases cause climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere, causing temperatures to rise and altering the way the climate functions. Carbon dioxide is the most obvious of these warming gases, but many others are also emitted by plane exhausts, such as oxides of nitrogen, which trigger the formation of ozone when emitted at altitude, and water vapour. All of these have a significant warming effect, especially when emitted at aircraft cruising altitude, several kilometres above the ground.

One of the major problems with aviation is that it cannot really be decarbonised. It takes a lot of energy to fly a heavy metal object full of people at hundreds of miles an hour across the world. Unfortunately, the technology is not yet there to allow planes to fly using hydrogen or electric fuel cells, which means that for now at least, jet fuel is very much fossil fuel based. Although efficiency improvements can reduce some of its impact, demand for aviation is enormous and any efficiency improvements are vastly outstripped by the rapid growth in passenger volumes. Many airlines, incl. United, are experimenting with biofuel blends as a possible transition fuel of sorts. But most biofuels are no better for the climate than oil. It’s not a serious solution.

What this means is that aviation is still a heavily polluting industry and will probably continue to be so for many years to come. However, action needs to be taken to combat climate change – something recognised in law by the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act. This stipulates that UK emissions must be reduced by 80% from 2005 levels before 2050. That’s a big cut, but it might be possible if every sector in the UK economy makes aggressive and sustained reductions in their emissions.

However, aviation is being given something of a free ride – a proposed third runway at Heathrow, which would emit another 9 million tonnes or so of CO2 per year (emissions on a par with the whole of Kenya). We cannot build new runways if we are to prevent climate change –- and doing so undermines all of our other efforts to reduce emissions across the board.

Together we’re unstoppable: why this is the year to turn the tide

By Rosa Fields - Red Pepper, February 10, 2016

The #Heathrow13 will ‘almost inevitably’ be sent to prison on 24 February for occupying the northern runway of Heathrow airport. They took this action, which led to 25 flights being cancelled, to protest against the building of a third runway at Heathrow airport, as recommended by the Davis Commission less than a fortnight previously. The fact is, we can't build any new runways in the face of climate change. It's that simple.

In going to jail, the #Heathrow13 will be the first climate activists in the UK to be given a custodial sentence. Given the seriousness that a prison sentence implies, it would be easy to let this scare us from taking the necessary action that our movements need. That would be a mistake, for now is the time for exactly the opposite. Now is the time to escalate things and given the amount of outrage towards this sentencing, as well as the love and support that is being shown to Plane Stupid, it seems like there is a real possibility of such an escalation.

No New Runways!

By Ella Gilbert MSc - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, January 30, 2016

Last week thirteen members of UK direct action group Plane Stupid were found guilty of aggravated trespass and unlawfully entering a restricted area of an aerodrome for their part in an action last July. The #Heathrow13 occupied Heathrow airport’s northern runway for a record-breaking 6 hours, preventing hundreds, if not thousands, of tonnes of CO2 from being emitted. The action took place shortly after the release of the Davies Report, a government-commissioned report on airport expansion in the Southeast that recommended a third runway be built at Heathrow.

There are many issues here: for one thing, the Prime Minister David Cameron promised in a pre-election manifesto not to build a third runway, “no ifs, no buts”. The recommendation for a third runway therefore represents another massive U-turn on the part of the Conservative government, who also once claimed to be part of the ‘greenest government ever’. Meanwhile, the Tories have scrapped subsidies for wind energy, removed feed-in tariffs and support for small-scale community energy projects and given the go-ahead to grant fracking licenses. All of their actions are in direct opposition to the Climate Change Act 2008, a radical piece of legislation that requires the UK to reduce emissions by 80% relative to 1990 by 2050. If we are to meet these (legally binding) targets, aviation cannot be allowed to continue to emit as it does. 

Yet Heathrow is just part of the problem. Building a runway anywhere in the UK will be massively damaging to the environment. Indeed, the Davies Commission investigated three options for expansion, none of which was not to expand at all. This is revealing of the government’s priorities: they would rather lock up peaceful activists and profit from human suffering than lose out on the £7bn a year that Heathrow apparently contributes to the UK economy.

Aviation cannot be readily decarbonised, and is one of the most polluting industries around. The emission of pollutants at cruising altitude makes their effects more pronounced and contributes considerably to climate change. On the ground, emissions of air pollutants like particulate matter and NOx cause severe respiratory illnesses and deaths in the local area. Within the 32km surrounding Heathrow, 31 deaths per year are directly attributable to emissions of NOx from aircraft.

Flying is also a preserve of the wealthy – in the UK, 70% of flights are taken by 15% of people, and only 5% of people globally have ever flown at all. This is a clear demonstration of global and national inequality. The whims of rich leisure flyers are prioritised over the lives and livelihoods of poor people who have to breathe toxic pollutants and lose their homes to rising seas. Aviation also enjoys a privileged status – aviation is not included in any climate negotiations or legislation and aircraft fuel and tickets are exempt from VAT. Imagine that – we live in a country where tampons are considered a luxury item and taxed as such, while a flight to a ski resort is not. The cost of meeting climate targets is never passed on, and airlines continue to get a free ride for exploiting us.

Exploitation is big business. Exploitation of the environment, of resources and of workers. Corporations like Heathrow Airport Ltd. are making billions from an industry that is contributing to premature deaths in the local area and around the world. And of course, it is the poorest people who get hit the hardest, and hit first.

In a capitalist society, a few people control the means of production, and they use this to exert their influence on the majority of people, profiting from their labour. This is a story of inequalities: Heathrow has the power and clout of the judicial system, financial backing, and a PR company behind them, whereas ordinary people have nothing but their bodies and their intellect at their disposal. Direct action is one way of redressing this vast imbalance and wresting back some control.

It scares those in power to think that people might begin to take things into their own hands and make change. That is why an example is being made here. The #Heathrow13 may soon be the first UK climate prisoners, but they certainly won’t be the last. To paraphrase Howard Zinn - action outside the law is essential to democracy. You’ll never change outdated laws without breaking them. We must challenge the capitalist status quo that abuses natural resources and people in equal and devastating measure with what means we have. It will take the sacrifices of thousands of normal people to break oppressive structures that exploit people and the environment, but the tide is turning.

An Injury to One is an Injury to All!: Solidarity with Heathrow 13 activists

By Plane Stupid - Dorsett IWW, January 27, 2016

Among thirteen defendants threatened with incarceration are two members of our One Big Union. Fellow Workers  Ella Gilbert from Norwich and Bec Sanderson from Machynlleth. We express our solidarity and admiration for their courage. An injury to one is an injury to all!

Read Ella Glibert's account of the trial:

More information at Plane Stupid

#Heathrow13 Trial Verdict

Monday, January 20th, 2016, London – Today in Willesden Magistrates Court, the thirteen Plane Stupid activists who occupied Heathrow’s north runway for six hours on the 13th of July last year were all convicted of aggravated trespass and being airside without lawful authority. The Judge has asked them all to return in 3 weeks on the 24th February for sentencing and has advised all defendants to prepare for immediate custodial sentences.

The thirteen defendants released the following statement, in response to their convictions:

Today’s judgement demonstrates that the legal system does not yet recognise that climate defence is not an offence. We took action because we saw that it was sorely needed. When the democratic, legislative and processes have failed, it takes the actions of ordinary people to change them.

We are very grateful for all the messages of support and solidarity we have received from all over the world, and are immensely proud of the action we took to combat emissions from aviation. Climate change and air pollution from Heathrow are killing people now, and the government’s response is to spend millions making the problem bigger. As long as airport expansion is on the agenda, Plane Stupid will be here. We’re in it for the long haul.

Most of the defence’s witness evidence was not heard in court, and none of the witnesses were allowed to appear in court. John McDonnell was not heard in full due to the Judge having already accepted the points he was addressing, and therefore ruling the statement irrelevant.

  • Her ruling on John McDonnell’s evidence is available here
  • And John McDonnell’s full statement is available here

Statements from three local residents from the Heathrow area were read out, detailing the debilitating and life-threatening medical conditions they were suffering from as a consequence of living near to the airport.

Character references for the defendants were also read out in court, from a variety of public figures including High Court Judge Peter Jackson and a long list of barristers and solicitors.

Alice Bowes-Larkin, one of the UK’s leading climate scientists, and a specialist in the climate impacts of aviation, submitted a statement which was read to the court. It mentioned that Heathrow “is the airport with the highest CO2 contribution in the world in terms of combined international and domestic flights” and “this puts Heathrow expansion at odds with the UK Government’s commitment to avoiding a ‘well below’ 2’C target, unless a major programme of efficiency and biofuel development are delivered in tandem.”

  • Sian Berry, the Green Party’s candidate for the London mayoral elections, came to court to support the defendants, despite her evidence having been ruled as inadmissible by the judge. Her statement is available here
  • George Monbiot’s statement was also ruled inadmissible, and is available here
  • Writing on how the activists will be seen in the future, he said:

They will be regarded not as outlaws and subversives, but as democratic heroes. Succeeding generations, struggling with the impacts that our government’s failures to take action on climate change bequeathed them, are likely to be amazed that they could have been seen in any other light.

In all, of the ten defence witnesses, only four had their evidence allowed, and none were permitted to appear in court.

The runway occupation, under the banner of anti-aviation expansion group Plane Stupid and the first on a Heathrow runway, lasted six hours and delayed or cancelled dozens of flights. The activists, who are all pleading not guilty, are accused of aggravated trespass and trespassing airside without authority.