Green Jobs and Airport expansion

This online event heard from authors of the report, A Green New Deal for Gatwick along with trade unionists and local airport campaigners on how to challenge the local jobs case for airport expansion and make the case for a different route.

This event aimed to provide tips and tools for incorporating a jobs lens to anti-airport campaigns.

Three key ways to do that emerged:

1.     Challenge the claims of developers
Alex Chapman, a Senior Researcher at the New Economics Foundation (NEF), presented recent work which powerfully undermines the case for airport expansion made by developers and often championed by local authorities and governments (slides). He pointed out that firstly, aviation is one of the fastest automating sectors. Airports and airlines shed jobs rapidly during the pandemic - even if passenger levels do return, expansion business cases are not accounting for how many will be replaced by automation and efficiency improvements.

The second key element is displacement: expanding airports in many cases move jobs from elsewhere (for example from other airports, or from high streets to airport shops). Furthermore, passengers travelling abroad spend money they may otherwise have spent on tourism at home. And thirdly, business travel peaked in the UK in 2006, and has been upended by Covid-19 as we find new (quicker, cheaper) ways to communicate. Old economic models still used to indicate potential business benefits are misleading.  

We heard the first-hand experience of Nick Hodgkinson from GALBA (Group for Action on Leeds Bradford Airport): how the jobs argument is deployed to portray campaigners as middle class tree huggers, uninterested in the livelihoods of local people. GALBA have benefited from NEF's business case critiques, but faced stern challenges in response. Nick also highlighted areas for further study here - such as the evidence on whether previous airport expansions in fact led to the promised growth in employment. Details are in Alex's reports for NEF - including the most recent, Turbulence Expected, showing UK airport's estimations of their climate impact are as optimistic as their job projections!

2.     Show the potential of green jobs alternatives
'There is no work' is the refrain used to explain proliferating unemployment in airport towns, and therefore justify a rapid return to business as usual for aviation. And yet we are in the midst of a climate and ecological emergency, not to mention the economic inequality that exacerbates it. There is a huge amount of work to be done!

Tahir Latif, former aviation group president for the trade union PCS, outlined the findings of A Green New Deal for Gatwick, which showed that 16,000 good green jobs could be created in the 'Gatwick Diamond' region alone. These green jobs would insulate homes, install green energy, restore nature, improve childcare and social care and expand public transport - all critical tasks to decarbonisation and fundamentally shift the economy onto a more secure and prosperous path. Green New Deal UK have since released data showing the green jobs potential for every constituency in the UK, as part of their Green Jobs for All campaign.

Tahir argued airport's claims to be "embedded in the local economy" represent a weakness, making them vulnerable to the vagaries of trends and shocks in the global aviation industry. Anti-airport expansion campaigns should push councils and government to rebalance local economies, to embed green jobs in local economic strategies more in line with their stated climate commitments.

3.     Build the case for a Just Transition
Despite the decades-long use of the term, last year a study found that a shocking 91% of oil and gas workers in the UK had never heard of a "just transition". This represents a colossal failure of campaigners to reach some of those most affected by their demands. It is unsurprising then that the gulf between the environmental movement and workers in high-carbon sectors continues - and continues to be exploited by incumbent powers to the detriment of people and planet. The movement against aviation growth can't make the same mistakes.  

Anne Kretzschmar, organiser with the international Stay Grounded network (slides), spoke to us about their 'Just Transition of Aviation' discussion paper and relationships with trade unions in Germany and at Europe-wide levels. Social protection for workers, as well as investment in alternative employment and investment in skills and retraining are essential to secure livelihoods (and political tenability) in aviation degrowth. She described the areas of common ground with aviation unions like the European Transport Federation, including workers rights, challenging privatization and local transition plans. Stay Grounded will soon be publishing guidance on how to work with trade unions.

Building on the need to engage directly with workers, we also heard from a group established in 2020 called Safe Landing, led by former pilot Todd Smith and former aerospace engineer Finlay Asher, which seeks to convene workers from within the industry to challenge plans for growth. Alethea Warrington from the charity Possible also highlighted upcoming work on 2030 aviation scenarios and very different implications for employment in the sector - we look forward to seeing this later this year.

In summary - there is huge energy building around anti-airport expansion campaigning in the UK and across Europe. Recent victories from Marseilles to Bristol to Lisbon, show tides are changing. If campaigns can speak confidently in the language of jobs they will be all the better placed to win a critical argument to the decades ahead.

Image of the logos of the Green European Foundation and Green House Think Tank with test which reads 'Published by the Green European Foundation with the support of Green House think tank. GEF project coordinator: Sian Hasker, Green European Foundation. This publication has been realised with financial support of the European parliament. The Polden Puckham charitable trust have contributed to the report design costs. The European Parliament is not responsible for the content of this project'