A long-time resident of the English village Butcombe, John Adams is fed up with the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, or what he calls the “corporate psychopath” that’s hellbent on expanding the nearby Bristol Airport.
Teachers’, one of Canada’s largest pension funds, owns 100 per cent of the regional airport, which is surrounded by sacrosanct greenbelt land in North Somerset, just outside Bristol, U.K.
For more than two years the airport has been pushing to increase its number of flights, and consequently carbon emissions, despite significant local outrage. Nearly 10,000 residents wrote in opposition to the expansion (2,400 wrote in support) and the vast majority of the area’s politicians and councils have voted against it, including more than 26 parishes and most recently Bristol.
The airport expansion is a case study in the power of financial institutions to help or hinder climate action at both local and international levels.
Students and teachers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, community groups, and climate change activist Greta Thunberg have publicly decried the expansion in videos, letters and pre-pandemic demonstrations.
“We are sick and tired of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan because they want really ludicrous growth,” Adams, a retired University of Bristol professor and lead member of Stop Bristol Airport Expansion, told HuffPost Canada.
“They have no understanding of the impact they’re having on the local environment.”
The airport plans to grow from 10 million to 12 million passengers a year, adding about 10,400 flights and thousands of parking spaces, according to planning documents. The expansion would increase carbon emissions by over 60 per cent to at least 1.6 million tonnes a year, said a report submitted to North Somerset council by Wood Environment & Infrastructure Solutions, a firm hired by the airport.
The Campaign Against Climate Change estimates the increase is more than the total carbon emitted by the surrounding homes, cars and industries combined, according to its study provided to the council.
The plan flies in the face of any progress the region has made towards climate action, including declaring a state of emergency in 2019, said North Somerset Councillor Steve Hogg.
“If you believe in climate change, how can you possibly reconcile that with an expansion that will put another million cubic tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? How can you possibly say that’s an acceptable thing to do?” Hogg said in an interview.
“It’s just unbelievable. That we’re even talking about it seems quite surreal in a climate emergency.”
North Somerset council formally rejected the expansion last year, which the airport is currently appealing.
A four-week national public inquiry will begin in July, costing the authority, already dealing with pandemic-related municipal budget cuts, hundreds of thousands of pounds for lawyers to defend its decision.
Bristol Airport CEO Dave Lees defended the expansion and appeal in a statement to HuffPost, citing projected economic benefits including more jobs, regional investments and tourism.
“As the U.K. emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic it is essential that all regions of the country are given the opportunity to grow to their full potential and contribute to the national recovery effort,” Lees said. “International trade and connectivity will become increasingly important in a post-COVID-19 and post-Brexit world — increasing aviation capacity is essential in delivering this goal.”
The airport’s master plan says it will be carbon neutral by 2025, but that only includes its “direct emissions,” not emissions from vehicles or airplanes — both major sources of greenhouse gases.
The expansion is supported by business groups like the Confederation of British Industry, which said the airport is a driver of prosperity and the plan would create international opportunities for the region’s businesses.
However, the airport is not connected to a train line or major highway and increasing the number of passengers will also add to already troublesome traffic congestion on narrow country roads, making the proposal difficult to justify, wrote the area’s Conservative MP Dr. Liam Fox, former international trade secretary, in a letter to Teachers’ CEO Jo Taylor in January 2020.
He anticipated business travellers and investors will continue to prefer to fly in and out of London’s Heathrow airport, connected to Bristol by train.
“It is hard therefore to make the case that expansion of Bristol Airport would lead to an improvement to the regional economy,” Fox wrote to Taylor.
A Teachers’ spokesperson told HuffPost it continues to support the expansion and appeal, despite growing opposition in the U.K. as well as from teachers and students in Ontario.
“We value and consider the feedback we hear from our members, but our decision-making is guided by our mission to deliver retirement security for our members while creating a positive impact for our partners and communities where we operate.”
The organization did not answer questions about how much the expansion or appeal is expected to cost.
This side of the pond
Teachers’ manages $200 billion in retirement savings and has invested between $8 billion and $25 billion in the fossil fuel sector, estimates the initiative Shift Action For Pension Wealth and Planet Health. Teachers’ told HuffPost their direct private assets in oil and gas is approximately three per cent of its portfolio.
“Going forward we are going to continue to focus on climate-friendly investments that will help shift away from fossil fuels,” Teachers’ said.
Shift said Teachers’ is doing more than other major Canadian funds on assessing the risk of climate change and investing more in renewable energy and green technology.
“That being said, we do not think their portfolio is aligned with a safe climate future,” said Patrick DeRochie, Shift’s pension engagement manager. The airport is one example. When we are in this state of climate crisis, we can’t have the expansion of fossil fuel emissions anymore.”
In January, Ontario students called on their teachers to demand the pension fund divest from oil, gas and coal industries, decarbonize its portfolio and pressure companies it owns to stop lobbying for activities that undermine strong climate policies.
Hundreds of teachers have signed an open letter to the pension fund urging it to stop investing in “climate failure,” including Grade 8 science teacher Teri Burgess from Marathon, Ont.
Burgess is concerned Teachers’ is engaging in a new form of climate denial, which is refusing to acknowledge we need to change our lifestyle, business practices and investments to successfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming. She’s part of a growing movement of teachers who want their pensions to be invested in sectors that will help stop climate change, rather than contribute to the crisis.
“As teachers, we have a huge responsibility to make sure our actions match our words and our teaching,” Burgess said. “I can’t have my students reading all these dire things in the news, and then having my money acting in a way that’s going to undermine their future. That feels terrible.”
Following this campaign, Teachers’ committed to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within its portfolio by 2050. It says it will do that by increasing investments in climate-friendly companies and ensuring its portfolio companies manage and report their emissions and advocate for climate policies.
However, it has not promised to divest from the fossil fuel industry and instead has made recent investments in the sector.
Within the last year, Teachers’ bought a stake in the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, a 69 per cent share of 1,700-kilometre Societa Gasdotti Italia gas pipeline in Italy and a majority stake in a Portugese plastic maker.
The Bristol Airport is yet another example of Teachers’ contradicting itself, said Aliya Hirji, a high school student and organizer with Fridays for Future Toronto.
“Expanding the airport is undemocratic. They’re actively appealing decisions and continuing to fund climate failure,” Hirji said.
‘The biggest carbon decision’
The councillors who’ve opposed the expansion insist they’re not against the airport itself, but rather rising emissions.
It’s time to take a “responsible attitude” towards climate change, said Bristol Councillor Jerome Thomas. He called the airport expansion “the biggest carbon decision of our city region for the next 25 years.”
Given the city’s reputation as a climate leader, it only makes sense to stop the airport’s expansion, he said.
Bristol was crowned a European Green Capital in 2015, a first for a British city. Three years later, it marked another milestone by becoming the first in the U.K. to declare a climate emergency and set the goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2030, as well as dedicating one billion pounds to green energy.
Thomas wants Ontario teachers to be aware of what’s happening in North Somerset and urge the pension fund to not go forward with the appeal.
“There’s something to be said about how painful it is that an organization that represents teachers, who look after the interests of the next generation, is doing the wrong thing for the next generation,” he said.