Backwards looking CBI on the wrong side of history over Bristol Airport

The CBI’s decision to support the expansion of Bristol Airport provides a revealing snapshot of the psychology which will prevent us dealing with the climate emergency and condemn our descendants to lives of horror and misery. This is no exaggeration. The Chief Executive of the Bristol based Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, described to the Association of British Insurers a process that is in train as follows:

“Much higher sea levels will take out most of the world’s cities, displace millions, and make much of the rest of our land surface uninhabitable or unusable. Much more extreme weather will kill more people through drought, flooding, wildfires and heatwaves than most wars have. The net effects will collapse ecosystems, slash crop yields, take out the infrastructure that our civilisation depends on, and destroy the basis of the modern economy and modern society. That is why our thinking needs to change faster than the climate. And why our response needs to match the scale of the challenge.”

That is not the view of a radical extremist. It is the opinion of a peer of the realm who has access to the very latest facts and expert analysis. He is also not simply telling his audience what they want to hear. Their profession is to insure against risk and to invest in the capital markets. Bevan points out that they are heading towards a scenario where their business model may collapse and the value of their investments disappear.

The irony is the CBI announcement comes only weeks after its new head, Tony Danker, delivered a speech of his own, plotting the course for his leadership. He said, “We have now reached a tipping point based on our renewed commitment to net-zero targets, requiring a totally different metabolic rate of economic planning, collaboration, and dynamism…History will judge how we used this moment to map the path to get to 2030.”

Yet the decision to support expansion of Bristol airport ignores real net-zero targets, shows no dynamism of thought and disregards any sense of long term impact or legacy. It does though mirror the standard practice of late of the old, tired, so-called free marketeers who have learnt to pay lip service to the challenges of the climate emergency and sixth mass extinction, but will not change their practices in any systemic way which may make a meaningful difference.

“Bristol Airport is one of the key drivers of prosperity for North Somerset, Bristol, and the South West,” said Ben Rhodes, CBI South West deputy director. This completely ignores the simple fact that the increased emissions generated by expansion of the airport will contribute to reducing everyone’s prosperity before too long, whether in the South West or elsewhere, as the effects described by James Bevan unfold.

Ben Rhodes, Tony Danker and their colleagues at the CBI may well be decent people. Only a few years ago they could probably have got away with supporting the airport without much dissent. The situation is rapidly worsening, however, and the consequences of being on the wrong side of history are too great to ignore. For the sake of us all, CBI members included, if they cannot comprehend what delivery on net zero targets means, over and above simply setting them, they need to stand aside and allow the business people who do get it (of which there is an ever-growing number) to step up. There is (just about) a chance still of achieving prosperity for all without recourse to burning more carbon than is unavoidable, as we transition away from our fossil fuel dependency. Advocating to expand airports, in the context we are now in, is not only embarrassing; it is in danger of becoming offensive.

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