Monday, January 27, 2020

No New Airport in Pickering In a Time of Climate Crisis

Could 2020 be the year that the federal government decides once and for all that building a new airport northeast of Toronto is simply not compatible with achieving Canada’s climate targets?  

The Pickering airport has long been a political football, punted down the road by every government of the day since it was first announced in 1972.  At that time, it was believed that a new international airport was needed to address capacity issues.  Farms, businesses and two whole villages were expropriated by the federal government in the early 1970s to make way for the airport’s grand opening, scheduled for 1979.  But over 45 years later, with air travel rates in the Greater Toronto Area never having lived up to expectations, those lands remain vacant (see: "Pickering airport? Time to hit reset,” International Airport Review, March 1, 2017).
In May, 2019, the aviation sector’s consultant, KPMG, submitted an assessment report to Transport Canada that many believe lays the groundwork for the federal government to greenlight the project (see: "New year sparks renewed interest in Pickering Airport,” the Oshawa Express, January 14, 2020).  However, just a month later, the House of Commons passed a motion declaring a national climate emergency (see: "House of Commons declares a climate emergency ahead of pipeline decision,” CBC News, June 18, 2019).  Constructing new aviation infrastructure like the Pickering Airport is seen by many as incompatible with achieving Canada’s long-term emissions reductions targets.

Air travel generally produces more greenhouse gas emissions per traveled kilometre than just about any other form of transportation.  And unlike road and rail transport, the technology doesn’t yet exist for wide-scale electrification.  While jet fuel efficiency has helped reduce net emission per flight, the incredible growth of air travel has seen emissions grow by over 80% since 1990 (see: "Air travel and climate change,” David Suzuki Foundation, October 5, 2017). Air travel now represent about 2.5% of all global emissions, thanks to cheap passenger fares and the rise of online shopping (see: "After decades in limbo, 2020 could be a critical year for the Pickering Airport,” CBC News, January 3, 2020).

A growing awareness of the out-sized impacts that air travel has on global climate has led to a phenomenon known as “flygskam” or “flight shaming”. Some European air carriers are citing this growing environmental awareness for a decline in domestic air travel rates (see: "Air travel is a huge contributor to climate change. A new global movement wants you to be ashamed to fly.” Vox, November 30, 2019).  As consumers continue to connect the dots between rising temperatures and air travel, where alternatives to flying are available, the trend toward ‘slow travel’ is expected to continue (see: "Canadian airlines feel the pressure of flight-shaming and the 'Greta effect',” CTV News, January 19, 2020).

As difficult as it is true, growth in the global aviation sector is simply not compatible with holding global heating to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius as Canada and almost every other nation in the world has committed to doing.  This commitment requires a complete rethink of how passengers and freight are going to move between locations, and how governments invest in transportation infrastructure.

This need to rethink transportation priorities provides our federal government with an exit strategy for the Pickering airport.  Land Over Landings, a local activist organization fighting to protect prime farmland and watersheds in Durham Region from unnecessary airport development, has been keen to point this out to local governments and Transport Canada.  They’ve been working at the local level with other citizens groups towards getting their regional government to acknowledge the climate crisis (see: "Durham’s Climate Change Emergency Declaration,” Land Over Landings, January 17, 2020), as so many others have already done, including Greater Sudbury’s.  

With polls showing a growing public awareness of the climate crisis among all Canadians, politicians and decision-makers at all levels of government would do well to listen to activist groups like Land Over Landings (see: "Durham Region taking action on climate change,” Durham, December 9, 2019).

No one is suggesting that it would be prudent to close down Canada’s aviation sector. Vulnerable citizens, many of whom live in remote areas, rely on air travel.  With an historic lack of investment in other forms of lower-carbon transport, like bus and rail, alternatives to flying can be expensive or non-existent.  But with the climate crisis upon us, it’s unacceptable to invest in new infrastructure that locks us in to growing our emissions at a time when we must start shrinking them.

(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the Green Parties of Ontario and/or Canada)

Originally published online and in print as, "May: No new airport in Pickering in a time of climate crisis," at the Sudbury Star, Saturday January 24, 2020 - without hyperlinks.