Huddling from the rain, around 30 Extinction Rebellion activists are getting ready to block Friday morning rush hour traffic at Blackwall Tunnel, one of London’s most congested roads.
Sarah, 38, the lead organiser of today’s protest, briefs the group on tactics and how to respond to furious motorists. She leads the activists in a moment of meditation. “Close your eyes. Be conscious of your intention today. Be conscious of your breath going in and –” she stops herself. “Maybe don’t breathe in too deeply.” The air is heavy with the smell of exhaust fumes.
It’s 7AM and the Rebels are here to protest against Sadiq Khan’s plans to build Silvertown Tunnel, a new four-lane road tunnel under the Thames with an HGV lane, the contract for which, they’ve been told, could be signed at any moment.
Khan says the tunnel – put forward by Boris Johnson while he was mayor and set to be financed with an estimated £1 billion from private investors – will ease congestion in Blackwall Tunnel. Opponents say it will exacerbate air pollution in areas of east London already over the legal limits, and increase carbon dioxide emissions that cannot be justified when the mayor himself has declared a climate emergency.
Around ten police officers wait close by with a van and an SUV, though the activists don’t expect arrests, because they will be “swarming” – blocking roads for only six minutes at a time.
Sixth-form student Joseph Knight tells me it’s his first time swarming, but he isn’t nervous. “I’m only 17 and my future is at risk. We don’t want to cause disruption, but we feel it’s the only way to safeguard our future. It’s like those in power are putting us on a plane they know is going to crash.”
The mayor’s declaration of a climate emergency in December 2018 was widely welcomed. But 36-year-old protester Morgan Trowland, a civil engineer, says: “It’s hypocrisy for the mayor to declare a climate emergency and then go ahead with this new road. He’s refusing to face the truth and act as if it’s real.”
Student Sheldon Allen, 18, agrees. “I’m a Labour member and I think Sadiq Khan’s been doing a fantastic job. But in an emergency, we need to drastically cut car use and invest in more public transport.”
A week into Extinction Rebellion’s occupation of four major London sites this April, the mayor urged activists to “let London return to business as usual.” Now his own perceived “business as usual” approach to policy has disappointed environmentalists who had higher expectations for an emergency approach to tackling climate change.
More than 40 experts and activists have signed an open letter to the mayor asking him to rethink the scheme, including Professor Frank Kelly of King’s College London, whose research on air pollution was used to support Khan’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in London. Another signatory is Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose nine-year-old daughter Ella suffered a fatal asthma attack after living near one of London’s busiest roads in Lewisham, and is the subject of a new inquest into whether air pollution contributed to her death.
While Khan opposes a third runway at Heathrow Airport and is expanding the ULEZ – which charges motorists whose vehicles do not meet lower emissions standards – he has “paused” a planned cycle lane which was deemed to be too expensive, as well as pressing ahead with the new tunnel.
In the wake of last October’s stark report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning that we have just over a decade to limit climate catastrophe, the UK, France, Ireland and Canada have declared climate emergencies, as have numerous cities around the world. More than half of UK councils have declared emergencies. But do these declarations push political leaders to enact the radical measures needed to stop the planet going beyond 1.5C of warming in the next 10 years? If there are no plans to stop a third runway at Heathrow despite Parliament declaring an emergency and if Canada can approve the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion just a day after its declaration, is there any point in environmentalists pressuring governments to make these declarations?
“Emergency declarations have had had a viral effect but I can’t help thinking that in 99 percent of cases they’re incredibly superficial,” says Professor Matthew Paterson from Manchester University, an expert on the politics of climate change. “An emergency is clearly a situation where the normal rules don’t apply – if your country is invaded, you don’t carry on as normal. I think people lobbying for this saw it as a magic political fix, which would invoke the same war-like sense of urgency in the minds of their leaders. And it’s not obvious to me it’s got any purchase in the way an emergency ought to have.”
But that doesn’t make emergency declarations completely worthless, he says. “It’s an attention-grabbing thing that keeps climate change on the agenda. And in another sense, talk is not cheap. If a leader admits we’re in a crisis, the public can say: hang on, why are you still going ahead with this damaging policy? There’s some evidence that talk can create the intended effect, of forcing those in power to realise where the hypocrisies are.”
That is what the protesters blocking the road today – handing out plums to win over motorists – and their allies lobbying the mayor, including schoolchildren, are hoping to achieve. Although Transport for London (TfL) says that Silvertown Tunnel will actually improve air quality by reducing congestion at Blackwall Tunnel and that tolls on both roads will limit traffic, opponents point out that a future mayor could remove tolling.
Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates says: “Essentially it’s a massively expensive congestion redistribution scheme. At best it’s going to maintain the status quo on air pollution and climate emissions when we’re in a climate emergency and we’ve got an air pollution health crisis. You can’t cut car use by building new roads.”
A spokesperson for Sadiq Khan said: “The Mayor has put tackling the climate emergency at the heart of his work… He [has] worked with TfL to make significant changes to the Silvertown Tunnel scheme to better protect the environment… The plans now focus on cleaner transport, with buses using the tunnel expected to be zero emission from launch, and the crossing being located within the extended Ultra Low Emission Zone.”
The activists are adamant that these mitigations are not enough. On the evening after I visted the protest, they are thrilled by the news that TfL has been suspended from signing contracts for the tunnel after a lawsuit launched by a bidder that had been left out of the process. “This gives us more time to put our case to the mayor,” says Victoria Rance, coordinator of the Stop Silvertown Tunnel Coalition. “He’s declared a climate emergency. Now he needs to act on it.”