Dublin airport censorship just doesn’t fly

There is a rich irony in the fact that an airline company sponsors the weather on RTÉ Radio One, with its ‘smart flies Aer Lingus’ tagline transmitted into a million homes, on the hour, every hour. After all, aviation is the world’s fastest growing source of climate-altering carbon emissions, so in a very real sense, Aer Lingus is changing the very weather whose forecasts it sponsors.

There are, as far as I’m aware, no grounds on which RTÉ, a state broadcaster could be compelled to stop accepting money from a company whose very business model is fuelling the dangerous destabilisation of the global atmosphere upon which we all depend.

After all, if the climate-destroying, biodiversity-thrashing Bord Na Mona can pass itself off as ‘Naturally Driven’, who could possibly object to Aer Lingus sponsoring the weather? And this of course assumes there exists even an iota of political will to be mustered in our collective defence (here’s a link to an Irish Times article on climate and aviation I wrote some years back; the stats may be a little out of date, but the gist is still relevant).

So, if you can’t beat them, join ‘em? To test this idea, I developed a simple advert on behalf of An Taisce’s climate change committee, and submitted it to the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA), the semi-state that operates all commercial activities at the airport. The draft advert read: ‘Frequent Flyer? Is your flying costing the Earth?’ I explained the rationale for placing the advert (with an extremely modest spend) at the airport as follows:

As a charity, our budget is very limited, but we did feel the Airport would be an ideal location to address the issue of the impacts of flying (especially frequent flying) on climate change. Research has shown that the flying public greatly underestimates the impacts of aviation-based carbon emissions, so we are hoping to begin to bridge that gap with ads that encourage the public to think about their flying and to better understand its impacts.

Not, I hope you will agree, a very menacing or unreasonable explanation. It took over a week to coax a response from DAA’s commercial department, as follows:

“Dear John,

I am sorry but we are not in a position to accept your advertisement for display.   DAA has a statutory obligation to grow its business at Dublin Airport and as our customers are the airlines we are unable to accept advertisements which attack our customers.  I trust that you understand our position”.

I was at a bit of a loss to understanding where exactly we were involved in an ‘attack’ on DAA’s customers. Surely if RTÉ can accept sponsorship for its weather bulletins from a company that is involved in an actual attack on our climate, then DAA can tolerate one or two modest ads from a charity pointing out that aviation carries grave, measurable environmental impacts? Well, apparently not. Whatever happened to free speech?

Undeterred, I decided to give it another lash, and wrote once more to the DAA, offering them a homoeopathically watered-down version of our proposed ad wording, one that surely no one could reasonably refuse to publish?

The revised wording was as follows:

“Want The Facts About Climate Change & Flying? Visit Antaisce.org/climate”

I accompanied this revised wording with the below email:

This line is, I’m sure you will agree, not attacking anyone, but simply offering links to factual information, based on peer-reviewed science.

We hope you will review the above advert and find it to be in no way offensive, misleading or inaccurate, and this being the case, there are no reasonable grounds, we believe, on which the DAA can refuse to allow us to advertise this message.

You mentioned the DAA having a ‘statutory obligation to grow its business’. You may be familiar with the provision in section 15 of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 for Public Bodies (including DAA) to have regard to:

“(c) the furtherance of the national transition objective, and
(d) the objective of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change in the State.”

Briefly, the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 puts a legal onus on all Irish public bodies to promote mitigation of climate change. This too is a ‘statutory obligation’ and makes it clear that Public Bodies have obligations that cannot be waived by statements such as “growing our business”.

I thought it not unreasonable to point out that since DAA defended its refusal to run our ad by sheltering behind its ‘statutory obligations’, surely they should also have cognisance of other statutory requirements too?

It took another two weeks and a series of reminder emails to elicit a response to my revised proposal, and this was issued on February 15th, as follows:

“Dear Mr Gibbons,

Thank you for your recent email and please accept my apologies for the delay in replying.

In relation to your query regarding the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act, 2015, DAA is fully aware of, and is committed to managing and reducing its carbon emissions in line with best practice.

  • DAA manages and reduces its own direct emissions in line with our public sector agreement with SEAI for improved energy efficiency and actively participates in the voluntary Airport Carbon Accreditation Programme.  DAA has signed up to achieve 33% efficiency in its own energy use in buildings and vehicles by 2020. Dublin Airport is well on track to meet this target through a wide range of energy efficiency measures such as the installation of LED lighting, the purchase of electric vehicles and the upgrading of its buildings.
  • DAA continues to influence others to manage their emissions and supports, in line with the National Aviation Policy, the implementation of a global scheme for managing international carbon emissions.
  • In terms of aircraft-related emissions, we work with our stakeholders such as the Irish Aviation Authority and our airline customers to reduce delays on the ground and in the air. We also support the use of fixed electrical ground power on aircraft parking stands.
  • International aviation emissions fall outside the scope of the Climate Act and do not form part of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) targets under the Paris Agreement (COP21).  International aviation emissions are dealt with through the international aviation body ICAO. Agreement on a global scheme for aviation emissions was reached in ICAO on 6 October 2016. Ireland, as part of the 44 member European Civil Aviation Conference, has made a declaration to adhere to the international scheme from its first implementation phase.

While cognisant of all of the above, we do have a statutory obligation to grow our airport business for the good of the Irish economy and also to promote Dublin as a hub airport as outlined in the State’s National Aviation Policy.

We therefore cannot accept an advertisement that may have the effect of encouraging consumers not to use the services of our airline customers. “

Well, that was that. The only route of appeal to this DAA diktat lay in the court of public opinion, so I contacted the Sunday Times and provided them with the trail of correspondence, and the below piece, penned by reporter Valerie Flynn, appeared on its news pages at the weekend as follows:

Airport blocks green advert

The Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) has refused to sell advertising space to an environmental charity for a campaign highlighting the impact of air travel on climate change.

An Taisce wanted to take out an ad in Terminal 2 with the slogan: “Frequent flyer? Is your flying costing the earth?” DAA would not accept it. “As our customers are the airlines, we are unable to accept advertisements which attack our customers,” the authority said.

An Taisce proposed the more conciliatory wording: “Want the facts about climate change and flying? Visit AnTaisce.org/climate.” However DAA rejected this proposal too, saying: “We cannot accept an advertisement that may have the effect of encouraging customers not to use the services of our airline customers.”

It said it had a “statutory obligation” to expand the business “for the good of the Irish economy”.

Air travel accounts for about 2% of emissions of greenhouse gases worldwide. Emissions from EU aviation rose by 80% between 1990 and 2014 and are forecast to grow a further 45% between 2014 and 2035. Dublin was Europe’s fastest-growing airport last year with 28m passengers, up 11%.

John Gibbons of An Taisce’s climate-change committee said a return flight from Dublin to New York generated as much CO2 as a year of driving a diesel car. He called the advert “fairly innocuous”.

The DAA said it takes its “responsibilities to climate change seriously”.

Another member of An Taisce’s climate committee, half in jest, suggested that the final sentence might better be reworded as follows: “The DAA takes its responsibility to change the climate seriously”. Funny or otherwise, it’s a whole lot closer to the truth.

Meanwhile an Austrian court has just blocked a 3rd runway at Vienna airport, arguing the new runway will work counter to the country’s pledges made as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. This ruling comes at a very interesting time, considering preparatory work on runway 3 at Dublin airport has just commenced. Planning permission for this project was originally issued in 2007 (with DAA applying in 2008 for amendments to remove numerous restrictions on nighttime use of the airport placed on their permission) but the recession led to the whole project being put on ice for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, the Green Party’s David Healy, a member of Fingal County Council, put out a statement this week that this proposed expansion may well contravene our Climate Act.

Many people in Ireland are now looking askance at political developments in the US, as the Trump regime installs climate deniers, oil company hacks and assorted shills to shred the hard-won regulatory oversight that keeps water safe, air breathable and entertains at least the possibility of climate change being addressed.

It’s easy to point at such ghastly caricatures as Scott Pruitt and Myron Ebell and console ourselves that at least Ireland does not harbour such anti-science ideologues and zealots. Yet, when you look at our semi-states, from Bord Na Mona to DAA to Coillte to Bord Bia, each pushes a self-serving agenda fundamentally at odds with our national and international obligation to rapidly and permanently decarbonise all aspects of the Irish economy.

Each in turn can argue, as DAA has done in the small instance cited here, that they are acting rationally, citing their ‘statutory obligation’ to grow, grow, grow, and devil take the hindmost. But then, it might seem entirely unreasonable to expect semi-states to take the lead when their political masters are rooted to the spot.

To give one final glimpse into the madhouse that is Irish climate policy, look no further than the recently published ‘Briefing Document on Ireland’s First National Mitigation Plan’. Here, Denis Naughten’s document claims, in language approaching Trump-speak, that ‘flat-lining in (agricultural) emissions represents enormous ambition rather than complacency’.

Success is inevitable when you set the bar so ridiculously low as defining abject failure to reduce emissions in our single most polluting sector as showing ‘enormous ambition’.


ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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6 Responses to Dublin airport censorship just doesn’t fly

  1. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    John, – Well done on an excellent piece of campaigning work in tackling Dublin Airport Authority on its failure to take its climate change responsibilities seriously, just like all the other Irish public agencies who are also doing little or nothing to meet our obligations, let alone taking a progressive stance regarding climate change, including Bord na Móna, Coillte and Bord Bia, that you mention, but I’m sure many others too.

    There is also a problem with environmental NGOs who talk the talk but who are not walking the walk, by which I mean they might support Stop Climate Chaos but many of their staff still fly, not just to London or Brussels but to far-flung destinations such as Australia, Japan, Canada and many other places, not just for their work but for vacations. Do you have a view on this, and do you fly yourself?

  2. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks Coilin, all we can do is to keep challenging our semi-states to either defend their woeful environmental decision-making or, preferably, change tack when this is pointed out to them repeatedly.

    Re. your 2nd question, views are mixed. Prof Kevin Anderson, for example, hasn’t flown in over a decade, while Prof Michael Mann flies around the world to give talks and attend climate conferences. I don’t know if he flies long-haul for leisure. I know that many NGOs who travelled from Ireland to the Paris conference in Dec 2015 did so by ferry and bus, while some actually travelled by land and sea to COP22 in Marrakesh, so I think your statement that they are not walking the walk is a bit sweeping.

    Myself? We took the ferry to France for our family holiday last year, I try to avoid flying where possible but haven’t – yet – sworn off it entirely. In the same way, I am now 90% vegetarian. Yes, 100% would be better, but changing the habits of a lifetime is tough, and environmentalists are of course also human, and struggle with these decisions and dilemmas all the time. But, in short, should we all fly a great deal less, shop a lot less and eat far less meat? Absolutely on all counts. And what about you?

  3. Tim Bellamy says:

    Very good thread, thanks for all the background digging. I saw the story in the Sunday Times and was wondering if there was more to it, as the article was quite short. Good therefore to get the whole story. I’ve been through Dublin airport many times, there must be many hundreds of ads all over the two terminals, would it really have killed them to have let An Taisce run a couple of paid ads? What surprised me about the report was that it never occurred to me that they would have the right to censor a fairly worded advert from a legitimate organisation just because they didn’t like the message. That’s disappointing and, frankly, a little worrying.

  4. John Gibbons says:

    Tim, yes it is worrying alright, but this mé fein attitude seems to be at epidemic level across our public service and semi-state sectors. That’s pretty much what you expect with privately owned corporations who make no bones about only being in it for the money, but it always comes as a bit of a kick in the teeth to encounter the same low standards in organisations ostensibly established by and for the benefit of the Irish state, and by extension, we its citizens.

    But there I go again, being naive and caring a tuppeny damn about the next generation; as they say, what did posterity ever do for us anyhow?

  5. Fergal Costello says:

    Tobacco companies are required to put a health warning on their products so why don’t we legislate to require airlines, airports and fuel filling stations to warn users about the damage their product is causing to the environment.

  6. John Gibbons says:

    Fergal, sounds sensible. I’d add to that list that if we simply taxed aviation fuel on the same basis as the fuel we put into cars and trucks, then the magical flights to London for a tenner would become a thing of the past. This huge tax break to this entire sector was always a bit dodgy, but now, given all we know about climate change, it’s utterly indefensible.

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