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Will drones at airports really help slow climate change?

A group called Heathrow Pause says it'll use drones to force Heathrow Airport to ground its planes next week.

Environmentalists are getting increasingly concerned about the impact of flying on the planet. They’d like everyone to do a lot less of it. But most of the world isn’t listening - the number of flights is going up year by year. So some green groups have decided to try and force airports to close by flying drones in their vicinity. (Because a drone colliding with an aircraft would almost certainly be deadly, planes can’t risk flying anywhere near where one is sighted.)

One such group, called Heathrow Pause, is planning to do this at London Heathrow. As the second busiest airport in the world, with around 1,000 planes and 200,000 passengers arriving and departing from it every day, this could cause serious disruption. But will it actually help slow down climate change?

Grounding planes for a little while probably won’t make any airports or airlines reduce their flights, because any costs they bear will still be significantly smaller than the profits they currently make. And it probably won’t succeed in stopping people from flying if they still want to, because most passengers who have their flight cancelled will have the option to go to a different airport or switch their travel dates. The odds are that many will do so because otherwise they may not be able to recover the money they’ve already sunk into accommodation and activities abroad, or be able to get home or to an important event or business meeting or looked-forward-to holiday.

But if the drone protest draws attention to the environmental impacts of flying it might encourage people to change their behaviour. YouGov found that 85 percent of people don’t know that flying less is one of the biggest ways they can reduce their carbon footprint. Of course, not everyone will be willing to give up travelling even if they're aware it harms the plant. Indeed, that same YouGov survey found that's the case for 3 in 10 people, and that this opinion is most common amongst frequent flyers.

Read our explainer on: the environmental impact of our economic choices.

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