City Declares Climate Emergency, Actually Means It and Does Something

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©. Bristol Airport

Bristol's airport expansion gets cancelled in a shocking act of doing something meaningful to go carbon neutral.

The local North Somerset Council in the UK has just rejected the expansion of Bristol Airport on environmental grounds. According to Bristol Live, local Councillor Steve Hogg explained (my emphasis),

We must weigh the benefits – which flow towards the airport, its shareholders, pension funds and those seeking a cheap holiday in the Med – against the unbearable burdens that will fall on the local community and the environment.”

North Somerset Council joined many other authorities in declaring a climate emergency last year. Challenging the officers’ suggestion local authorities have little control over emissions linked to aviation, Cllr Hogg said: "We have direct control over the future emissions - we do that by turning down this application."

Cllr John Ley-Morgan seconded the proposal, saying: “How can we achieve our ambition for carbon neutrality by 2030 if we approve this decision?”

TreeHugger has mocked these declarations of climate emergency before; 1,385 jurisdictions have signed them, apparently covering 825 million people. When Mayor Tory of Toronto announced it, we all wondered if he would actually do anything, like cancel the rebuild of the elevated expressway or actually build some bike lanes. Of course not; it's cars before climate. North Somerset has actually done something to address the climate emergency and their deadline, instead of being hypocrites.

Screen capture. Architects Declare

Architects Declare/Screen capture

It also raises the point that we have covered before, asking recently, Is it a new era, where architects should be held to account for the environmental impact of their work? Many offices have signed on to Architects Declare, yet they keep designing airports, treating their declarations like most cities treat their climate emergencies.

Quoted in the Architects Journal, TreeHugger regular Elrond Burrell believes the profession needs to "show moral leadership in the climate emergency and openly reject such appointments."

‘Architects claim to be influential or complain that we are no longer influential,’ he says. ‘Which is it? The big names clearly could be influential; imagine the headline “Foster turns down a major airport commission.” It would certainly make the client have a second thought, especially if all the Architects Declare signatories took a stand and said no more airports.’

Burrell adds that positive, vocal action would also show that it was ‘possible to be a successful architect and have a moral backbone’.

In another AJ article, Michael Pawlyn and Steve Tompkins strongly challenged the usual justifications that architects use, including the dream that electric planes and biofuels will make flying carbon free, and that 'If we don’t design new airports someone else will,’ and finally, ’People who oppose airports are hypocrites if they fly at all’ (that's me).

The fault with the hypocrisy argument is the implication that unless someone is perfect, they don’t have a right to talk about how things could be better. The fact is that we have all contributed to the climate crisis and, somehow, we all need to work our way out of it. Adopting defensive positions in response to legitimate, constructive criticism is going to make that more difficult.

They concluded by pointing out that we have a problem right now, not in 2050.

So, what should architects and engineers conclude from this? In the crucial 10 years we have left to get on top of the crisis, electric planes will not save us. Neither will biofuels. We cannot expand air travel if we are serious about trying to stay within the ‘safe’ 1.5°C limit of global heating. Making airport buildings and ground transportation greener addresses less than 1 per cent of the problem.

So congratulations to the North Somerset Council. By cancelling the airport expansion, they actually followed through, they actually practiced what they preach. We could all learn from their example and recognize that It's an emergency, and we have to act like it.