A composite of planes taking off over an hour from Heathrow.
Photo: Getty

Heathrow is one of the world’s busiest airports. And that’s an exactly why climate activists plan to shut it down by flying drones next month.

A group called the Heathrow Pause has called for activists to create an “exclusion zone” around the airport on September 13th. If the group succeeds in stopping flights from taking off, it would snarl traffic at the seventh busiest airport by passenger volume on the planet, one that’s also the single largest source of carbon pollution in the UK. The group feels it’s worth risking arrest in the face of the climate crisis. The group noted in its manifesto that “it is a crime against humanity - and all life on earth - to support carbon intensive infrastructure projects.” And frankly, they’re right.

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Heathrow has a 5 kilometer (3.1 mile) no-fly zone around it for drones and other aircraft not taking off from the airport. Activists plan to infiltrate that space in the hopes of grounding flights due to unsafe conditions, emphasizing that will not be flying their “toy drones” within flight paths. In the past year, people have shutdown airports in Dubai, London, and Newark with drones for less, uh, pressing reasons (as my colleagues at Gizmodo have helpful noted, they were idiots). The fact that a few tiny drones can shutdown some of the world’s busiest airports has highlighted a weakness of the aviation industry that climate activists plan to exploit. So far, the group has four pilots who plan to fly drones and risk arrest, and they’re asking for more people to join them. Earther has reached out for more details about their action and recruitment plan.

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“I am a law-abiding citizen—a mother and a grandmother, too,” Valerie Milner-Brown, one of the activists planning to disrupt Heathrow, said in a statement. “I don’t want to break the law, I don’t want to go to prison, but right now we, as a species, are walking off the edge of a cliff.”

Heathrow has long been a target of climate activists. Flights departing from the airport emitted 19.5 million tons of carbon in 2017. If an approved third runway is built, it would add an extra 4.3 million tons of pollution to the planet’s atmosphere and worsening the climate crisis. Activists have long opposed the runway, but the recent wave of activism in the UK by Extinction Rebellion has renewed pushes to block it—particularly in light of the UK government declaring a climate emergency earlier this year.

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With what we know about climate change, that puts the Heathrow Pause—which is aligned under the same principles as Extinction Rebellion: to tell the truth about climate and wind down carbon pollution with public input—square on the right side of the science and the rapidly shifting politics. Recent reports have shown just how fast the world is unraveling and the dwindling time we have left to set things on a better course by reducing carbon pollution. Air travel is among the hardest sources of carbon emissions to get rid of simply because there’s no alternative to carbon-heavy jet fuel. Developing bio jet fuels at scale is still decades away, so finding ways to take air travel’s carbon emissions out of the sky or just flying less are the only way to bring those emissions in line with the best available science recommendations. Grounding planes for a few hours won’t achieve the flying less thing, but the silent skies would serve as a reminder of what the future could look like if we don’t act on climate soon.