Extinction Rebellion issued a call for a “tax strike” in London to protest the local government’s sponsorship of projects it argues are not compatible with the UK achieving carbon neutrality by 2025.
Activists gathered in front of Town Hall on Thursday as part of an ongoing week of protests they dubbed “summer uprising”. The group’s trademark disruptive actions – which have seen activists block roads and glue themselves to buildings and trains – have taken place in several British cities, including Leeds, Glasgow, Cardiff and Bristol since Monday.
More than 20 activists have been arrested so far for blocking traffic by glueing themselves to a pink bathtub on a Bristol highway, and for trespassing and disrupting businesses in London. Calling on volunteers to make themselves available for arrest is part and parcel of the group’s tactics, aimed at achieving maximum impact and taking the battle to the courts.
The “London tax strike” consists of asking participants to withhold 22 percent of their council tax – a household tax collected by local authorities across Britain – the percentage that goes to fund the Greater London Authority (GLA), the regional government responsible for administering the city and its suburbs.
“We believe in the importance of tax. It is our mutual investment in society. But your vision for London threatens our futures,” said a declaration that a couple of hundred demonstrators read out in front of the mayor’s office by the Thames.
They want the GLA to stop all funding for projects that environment campaigners argue will increase air pollution in the city. This includes the construction of a new tunnel in East London, due to begin later this year, known as the Silvertown tunnel.
The tunnel is being constructed to ease traffic congestion at another major Thames crossing point; concrete factory works in the East London borough of Newham, next to the Olympic Park; and an incinerator in north London.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan declared a “climate emergency” last year, alongside 600 other local authorities worldwide – most recently Paris – after a series of scientific reports sounded alarm bells about the scale of the potential disaster. They included a report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned last October there are only 12 years to keep global temperatures to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius, on the most ambitious end of the Paris agreement.
Nearly 200 countries signed the 2016 Paris Agreement aiming to limit global warming to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to limit the rise to 1.5C.
But scientists warned just half a degree could make a huge difference to the lives of millions of people at risk of displacement linked to natural disasters.
In June, the UK became the first country to commit to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 by avoiding or offsetting emissions. But Extinction Rebellion called this target too little, too late and says the country should aim for 2025.
“Our priority are the national demands. But at the heart of extinction rebellion is taking control over our own lives, doing as much as we can locally,” Greg Frey, 23, one of the coordinators for Extinction Rebellion’s London political strategy working group, told Al Jazeera.
“Historically, tax strikes have been a very effective way to leverage the powerful who aren’t otherwise listening. The suffragettes did it, the Indian independence activists did it,” he added.
The group is asking participants to pledge to withhold the portion of their council tax that funds the GLA. Once 2,700 people pledge, they intend to use the funds to finance a London Citizens’ Assembly to write an emergency plan for London to replace the current 2020 London Plan.
“The mayor has declared a climate emergency and shares the protesters’ passion for tackling this issue,” a spokesperson for the Greater London Authority told Al Jazeera.
“However it is disappointing that the GLA precept is being singled out by campaigners, over 90 percent of which funds the Metropolitan Police and London Fire Brigade to keep Londoners safe,” the spokesperson said.
“It is government who hold most of the key levers and who need to take the bold action required at a national level.”
Following Extinction Rebellion’s previous round of climate protests, the UK Parliament passed a non-legally binding motion to declare a “climate emergency” tabled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. More than 1,000 activists were arrested over 10 days in April.
Victoria Rance, 59, a resident of Greenwich, one of the London areas that will be connected by the new tunnel, conceded the mayor “did some really good things” and the tunnel was originally planned by the previous mayor and frontrunner for the post of prime minister, Boris Johnson.
The campaign against it has run for six years.
“It’s got an HGV [heavy goods vehicle] line between a very polluted poor borough and another very polluted poor borough,” Rance told Al Jazeera.
“In a few weeks they’re going to start signing contracts for it, so this is a last-ditch attempt to persuade [the mayor], in light of the climate emergency, that more fossil fuel transport is not the answer.”