The Portuguese government wants to build a new airport; environmentalists want climate justice

The Portuguese government wants to build a new airport; environmentalists want climate justice

On 22 May, activists block a main road in protest against the construction of a new airport in Lisbon.

(Marta Vidal)

Standing on a wooden tripod on a major road leading to Lisbon Airport, a young activist holds a pink flag that depicts an airplane in flames, and raises her clenched fist. “Climate Justice Now!” reads a large banner hanging from a footbridge above the blocked road. Drums and chants echo across roads emptied of cars, as a few hundred people gather on a May afternoon waving flags and holding signs saying: “Fewer planes”, “More trains” and “Just transition”.

They are protesting the Portuguese government’s plans to build a second airport in Lisbon. This civil disobedience action was organised by the climate justice group Climáximo with support from other environmental organisations. Protesters called for a reduction in air travel, more railways and a just transition for workers in the aviation sector. “We have very little time to avoid climate chaos and the system’s institutions are failing miserably,” said the organisers in a statement.

A new airport in Lisbon has been under discussion for decades. In 2018, the government announced plans to build a new airport in Montijo, in the southern bank of the Tagus River, about 30 kilometres from the city centre. The project suffered a setback this March, when Portugal’s aviation regulator refused to evaluate plans for the airport due to opposition from some local municipalities. Nevertheless, protesters took to the streets to oppose the new airport and any form of airport expansion that would increase air traffic-related emissions.

Sitting crossed-legged in the middle of the road with his hands locked to other activists and a pipe placed over their arms to make removal more difficult, 19-year-old João Sousa was part of a human chain that blocked a roundabout and two roads near Lisbon’s airport for about an hour. “Less aviation, more imagination!” he chanted as the police dragged away the chained activists. Driven away in a windowless police van, he was among the 26 protesters detained that day for “disobeying orders of dispersion” and “endangering road safety”. A month later, they are yet to be formally charged.

A megaproject at odds with Portugal’s climate ambition

This is not the first time that climate justice activists have faced criminal charges for opposing the construction of Lisbon’s new airport. In April 2019, a group of activists from the aviation degrowth collective Aterra, a member of the international network Stay Grounded, interrupted a speech given by Prime Minister António Costa in an attempt to raise awareness about the harm that would be caused by a new airport.

Francisco Pedro walked up to the stage and calmly tried to take the Prime Minister’s microphone, as other activists threw paper planes. He was dragged away violently by security and charged with qualified disobedience as well as “disturbing public order and tranquility.” Pedro, who could face up to two years in prison for the charges, tells Equal Times: “Those asking for justice are taken to court, while those who are responsible for ecological crimes get away with it.”

Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of the greenhouse gas emissions that are dramatically warming the planet. Environmental campaigners say that the new airport plan is at odds with the government’s commitment to reduce emissions and become carbon neutral by 2050.

In addition, environmental groups say that hundreds of thousands of protected migratory birds and their habitats in the Tagus Estuary Natural Reserve – Portugal’s most important wetland – will be endangered by the new airport.

But the project’s defenders say that Lisbon needs to expand its airport capacity to support the country’s economic development and the continued growth of the tourism industry, which accounted for 15 per cent of GDP pre-Covid.

ANA, the private Portuguese airport operator that is promoting and financing the new airport, and which is owned by the French construction group Vinci, said it will invest €1.15 billion on the expansion of Lisbon’s current airport and the construction of a new one in Montijo.

Pedro points out that the core of Vinci’s business is running privatised infrastructure that depends on government-backed concessions. He emphasises that Vinci has been accused of serious workers’ rights violations in Qatar, and the destruction of ecosystems, as well as bribery and corruption in the construction of a new motorway in Russia (all of which were denied by the corporation). “Vinci is responsible for very serious damage done to people, to ecosystems and to the entire planet, and yet it’s these 26 young activists who end up facing criminal charges,” he observes.

“Birds are not stupid, but neither are we”

“For a 16-year-old, it’s natural to demand absolute decarbonisation,” wrote assistant secretary of state Alberto Souto de Miranda in an opinion piece published by the Portuguese newspaper Público dismissing criticisms and defending the expansion of Lisbon’s airport capacity. But opposition to the project is not limited to a small group of idealistic young people. Criticism has, in fact, been widespread. In March, more than 40 scientists signed an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister expressing their concerns about the environmental impact of the project and reminding the government of its commitment to protect biodiversity and reduce carbon emissions as part of the European Green Deal.

And last year, eight environmental organisations took the Portuguese government to court in a bid to prevent the Montijo Airport due to the damage it will cause to the vast Tagus estuary. Scientists and environmental organisations have also filed complaints at the Bern Convention and the United Nations’ African Euro-Asian Bird Agreement.

“The Portuguese authorities did not consider that this project would adversely affect the integrity of this irreplaceable wetland, a clear violation of EU and national nature protection laws, which cannot go unpunished,” said Soledad Gallego, the environmental organisations’ attorney, in an open letter. The organisations accused the government of failing to carry out a credible environmental impact assessment. The government is proposing to ‘move’ the birds and offset the negative impact by recovering adjacent areas. “Birds are not stupid and it is likely they will adapt,” said Souto de Miranda in his Público article.

“Birds are not stupid, but neither are we,” says José Alves, a biologist who has spent the last 15 years studying birds at the Tagus estuary.

His research indicates that waterbirds cannot simply be moved. Alves studies black-tailed godwits, a species listed as threatened, which breed in northern Europe and use the Tagus each spring to feed and rest during their annual migration to Africa.

“These birds are extremely faithful to the places they use. We followed birds that every year would always go to the same places between Portugal and the Netherlands, or Iceland,” he says. Even if the birds found other places to rest and feed, they would be competing with other birds for resources. It would take time for new generations to adapt, but the impacts of the airport would be felt immediately.

Alves thinks the airport would pose a major threat to the most important wetland for migratory waterbirds in Portugal. The researcher criticises the government’s failure to assess the ecological importance of the area and the threats posed by the likelihood of bird strikes, since the risk of collisions between birds and airplanes would endanger people, birds and aircrafts. “There needs to be a broad discussion on the airport,” Alves tells Equal Times, but he says there has been mostly silence from the government, as the letter he published together with more than 40 other scientists remains unanswered.

The new airport could also have consequences far beyond Portuguese borders. Worried about the negative impact the project could have on birds that breed in the Netherlands, the Dutch conservation NGO Vogelbescherming gathered about 40,000 signatures in an online petition against the airport.

“The number of godwits has been declining considerably for decades,” says Marc Scheurkogel, a spokesperson for Vogelbescherming. He adds that the black-tailed godwit, the Dutch national bird, is protected by European law, and that the Tagus estuary also holds protected status. “We have a shared responsibility [to protect] birds,” he says. For environmentalists, the consequences would mean irreversible damage to nature, people and the climate, which would be felt across Europe.

Growth and climate – doing things differently

Despite the dramatic reduction in flights across the globe due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Portuguese government has reiterated its intention to move forward with the Tagus airport project. In March, Portugal’s aviation regulator rejected an evaluation request submitted by ANA, since two local municipalities opposed the airport project in Montijo citing environmental concerns. According to Portuguese law, the project can only go ahead if all local governments provide positive feedback.

To deal with the setback, the government proposed to change the law in question. In the meantime, an environmental assessment will be carried out to study the impact of the airport in Montijo, and a second option of building the airport in Alcochete, further north in the Tagus estuary. Portugal’s airport operator has defended Montijo as the best option and the airport expansion as “fundamental for the economic development and recovery of the tourism sector.”

However, for Luís Leitão, a member of the executive commission of the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP) and a coordinator of the Trade Unions of Setúbal (the region where the airport is planned to be built), job creation and climate action are not mutually exclusive.

“Environmental concerns are not incompatible with fair employment,” he tells Equal Times. “Developing railways, investing in circular economy systems and public transport could help create green jobs.”

For Leitão, Portugal’s overreliance on tourism proved to be unsustainable during the pandemic. “It’s important to invest in local production and self-reliance, rather than just tourism,” he says.

Even before foreign tourist arrivals slumped 92 per cent as a result of Covid-19 lockdowns, climate justice activist Francisco Pedro was convinced that mass tourism was harmful and unsustainable. “Profits from tourism do not make up for the losses caused by pollution, global warming, and the housing crisis,” he argues. For Pedro, the struggle for climate justice involves acknowledging that growth at all costs leads to environmental destruction and exploitation, and that it’s a model that needs to be challenged.

Prioritising social and ecological well-being, he says, requires being able to imagine a different way of doing things. “We can use our imagination and our creativity to change the way we organise ourselves, to fight for everyone’s well-being.”

Future generations

Two examples show that airport expansion plans are not inevitable. One involves Vinci’s plan to build a big airport in the village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near the French city of Nantes. Residents, farmers and environmental activists opposed the plan that also threatened a protected wetland. As activists moved in and built autonomous collectives in opposition to Vinci’s plan, the village became a symbol of resistance. In 2018, the French government announced the abandonment of the new airport.

“The example of Notre-Dame-des-Landes is very inspiring, this possibility that many people together can join forces to stop a project that had been decided by one of the most powerful economic groups and one of the most powerful governments in Europe,” says Pedro. “They managed to stop what seemed impossible to stop, and to show there is a real possibility of living in a better way, of managing lands collectively and protecting the environment. It opens a horizon of possibilities.”

A more recent example is a British court’s decision in 2020 to declare plans for a third runaway at Heathrow airport illegal and in breach of the UK’s climate change commitments. The ruling was made on the grounds that the policy of expanding an airport is incompatible with commitments made by the government in the Paris Climate Agreement.

For biologist José Alves, it’s an inspiring precedent. He says Portugal’s airport plan shows not only a disregard for conservation laws and international agreements, but it also blatantly contradicts publicly stated commitments to move towards a more sustainable, decarbonised future.

“As civil society, we want to be able to have a say in the matter, to decide what we will leave future generations,” he tells Equal Times, adding that young people taking to the streets empower the struggle for environmental justice.

19-year-old João Sousa says he will not be intimidated by the criminal charges brought against the activists. A few days after the protest for aviation reduction, he participated in a demonstration to protect a wood near his home in Carcavelos, at the mouth of the Tagus River. “My generation might face the consequences of climate chaos,” says the student. “But at least, I will be able to look back and say I didn’t just stand by. That I did everything I could to stop it.”