Hiking the price of international flights to pay for greenhouse gas emissions, putting some people off flying here, would be a good thing, Air New Zealand’s chief environmental adviser Sir Jonathon Porritt says.

His comments follow a suggestion from Simon Upton, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, for a distance-based passenger tax – adding as much as $155 to an economy class fare to the United Kingdom, or $25 to the cheapest seats to Australia – to fund climate-based initiatives. Such a fund might raise up to $400 million a year.

Air New Zealand’s sustainability advisory panel, which Porritt chairs, will meet online over three days at the end of the month, and Upton’s passenger tax idea, paid at departure, is on the agenda.

Speaking from the United Kingdom, Porritt won’t say if he backs a passenger tax as he hasn’t spoken to other panel members. Also, before a possible endorsement, he wants to see the tax’s design, and how it might work with charges like the international visitor levy and Air NZ’s voluntary offset scheme, FlyNeutral.

He’s realistic about how difficult it is for an airline – whose core product causes greenhouse gas emissions – to reduce emissions, and is firm the national carrier must remain internationally competitive.

‘Hashtag: no going back’

But he says Upton’s tax is a strong contender for the industry (well, for travellers, really) to finally pay its way for environmental damage. Aviation emissions must be reduced urgently, Porritt says – which will only happen by “forcing the industry”.

The idea of returning international tourism to pre-Covid levels is wholly inappropriate, he says. (In a startling line from a 70-year-old, he adds: “Hashtag, no going back.”) “Thoughtless, heedless” tourism has driven the irresponsible use of air travel, he says, leading many to believe it’s a right rather than a privilege.

“Controversial though it may be, I’m in favour of putting off some people coming to New Zealand,” Porritt says. “I just don’t believe in the idea that the number of international visitors to New Zealand can grow and grow and grow without limits. I just don’t believe that is credible and I don’t believe it’s right. So, if a higher price for the privilege of flying to New Zealand puts some people off, good.”

(Porritt is a co-founder of British sustainable development charity Forum for the Future, which works with several local companies, including Air NZ and Fonterra. He’s the son of New Zealand’s 11th Governor-General, Arthur Porritt – bronze medallist in the 1924 Olympics ‘Chariots of Fire’ 100m race.)

Sir Jonathon Porritt suggests airlines will have to be forced into cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Photo: Nora Tam/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

Upton’s passenger tax suggestion has come in the face of rocketing growth, pre-Covid, in international travel. Between 2000 and 2019, international flight arrivals to New Zealand rose from 1.6 million to 3.8 million. (Over the same period, the number of Kiwis travelling overseas increased from 1.2 million to 3.1 million.)

Flying overseas visitors to and from New Zealand in 2017 led to an estimated 3.3 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (Mt CO2e), or about four percent of the country’s gross emissions.

Yet, other than voluntary contributions, there’s no accounting for it.

Because they don’t belong to a single country many just pretend international aviation emissions don’t exist. Yet, if global aviation – including domestic flights which, in New Zealand, are included in the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) – were a country it would be among the world’s top 10 emitters.

(Aside from burning carbon dioxide, aircraft also emit oxides of nitrogen, soot particles, oxidised sulphur species and water vapour, the net effect of which is warming. There’s also the problematic formation of contrail-cirrus clouds.)

The United Nations agency ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, is responsible for negotiations, yet the industry’s international emissions remained outside the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement. In 2016, it adopted a carbon offsetting scheme known as CORSIA, which promised to offset any growth in emissions above 2020 levels.

Upton tells Newsroom negotiations in ICAO have been too slow and unambitious and a passenger tax is one of the few things a sovereign country can do unilaterally. “I don’t actually think there’s another answer there.”

It seems an easy issue for New Zealand to lead because very little is happening internationally. (Although a change in administration in the United States has changed the narrative there. US airline bosses met with Biden administration officials last month, discussing reduced emissions from planes and pushing for incentives for lower-carbon aviation fuels.)

This country has form on doing something to acknowledge the crossover between existential threat and reputational harm. In 2009, at the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Sir John Key’s administration announced it would contribute $45 million to what it called a global research alliance, involving 20 countries, into agricultural emissions. “The principle’s a really good one,” Upton says.

However, our Government seems unlikely to act on international aviation emissions – at least, not quickly.

Asked if the proposal would be given serious consideration, Tourism Minister Stuart Nash’s office said: “He has told media he is not a fan of the proposal and that an international visitor levy (on arrivals) was already in place.” Chris Roberts, chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa went further, saying Nash specifically ruled it out. “I don’t believe it is an idea that is going to be picked up.”

Before last year’s election, Finance Minister Grant Robertson ruled out any new taxes in this term. His office confirms he stands by that promise – although it didn’t answer a specific question about whether an environmental charge fell naturally in the “tax” basket.

Any Government policies on tackling emissions will almost certainly come from the Climate Change Commission – whose draft advice included a single paragraph about international aviation emissions. “As required by the legislation, we will review whether these should be included in the 2050 target in 2024,” the report said.

For its part, Air NZ’s chief operational integrity and safety officer Captain David Morgan says it’s discussing funding for aviation decarbonisation with the Government, and a departure tax might be an option. (He didn’t rule out Air NZ taking legal action if the tax was implemented.)

“We would need to understand more about how this would work and its potential impact on customer behaviour. What is clear is that as New Zealand and the tourism sector rebuilds from Covid-19, we need to find the right balance of minimising carbon emissions from the sector and making sure all of Aotearoa benefits from the resumption of international tourism to a sustainable level.”

Upton thinks they’re missing a trick. A change has to happen now, during the pause in international tourism, he says, as a climate tax will be less visible among higher ticket prices issued by weakened airlines re-starting with fewer planes and fewer routes than before.

Another reason to move now is changing public attitudes.

James Higham, Professor of Tourism at University of Otago, has worked in sustainability for more than a decade. (He contributed research to Upton’s previous tourism report.) “A lot of public debate has hardened towards excessive flying,” Higham says.

Says Upton of his suggested tax: “This could be instrumental, ironically, in actually saving the industry.”

Simon Upton says it’ll take collective action, probably led by the Government, to reduce international aviation emissions. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The climate science is firming.

According to American space agency NASA, last year tied with 2016 as the warmest on record, and the last seven years have been the warmest recorded, “typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend”.

Under the Paris Agreement, signatories – including the United States, which has rejoined – agreed to work together to limit post-industrial warming to 2 degrees Celsius, thus avoiding the most dangerous effects of global heating. To be safe, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says carbon pollution needs to drop 45 percent, on 2010 levels, by 2030 and be “net zero” by 2050. It’s not tracking well, however.

Fulfilling all current Paris Agreement pledges would only reduce emissions by 1 percent, the UN said last month, leading Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of UN Climate Change, to say the world was “collectively walking into a minefield blindfolded”.

New research released this week says to keep within safe limits, emissions must fall by the equivalent of a global lockdown roughly every two years for the next decade.

Meanwhile, UN secretary-general António Guterres warns the world must end its “deadly addiction” to coal if it’s to effectively tackle the climate crisis.

“Many of our long-haul markets are susceptible to growing climate concerns and that threatens far-flung, geographically distant destinations …. That’s New Zealand – that’s us.” – James Higham

Heightened awareness has led governments to declare climate emergencies, and a rise of the flight shame (“flygskam”) movement. The European Union has included aviation emissions in its ETS. And, of course, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg inspired school strikes for the climate.

Higham, the tourism professor, says: “Many of our long-haul markets are susceptible to growing climate concerns and that threatens far-flung, geographically distant destinations that are reliant on long-haul aviation, which is very unsustainable.”

He laughs. “That’s New Zealand – that’s us.”

Talk to any serious player in the New Zealand tourism industry, Upton says, and they’ll say climate and emissions are the big elephant in the room. But it’s so big no one really wants to talk about it. “So you do all these other things and then you hope that one will go away, which it won’t.”

That’s a bit of a problem for an industry that used to be our highest export earner, at $41.9 billion a year, pre-Covid, about 42 percent of which (including $1.8 billion in GST) came from overseas tourists.

It’s fair to say the sparkling “100% Pure” marketing tagline for the country has dulled in recent years. There’s been an attempt to muddle through, in the vain hope unfettered growth could be paired with an image of sustainability. Now, without action on international aviation emissions, our reputation for nurturing the natural environment is in danger of being further tarnished.

Forest and Bird’s Canterbury and West Coast regional manager Nicky Snoyink says we’ve had our head in the sand too long. “Now we have to deal with it.”

No industry likes to be singled out, says Shaun Hendy, an Auckland University physics professor who gave up flying for a year, to highlight the issue. “But the aviation sector has been very slow to move.”

Higham, of University of Otago, says society has come to the end of the road of what he calls exhaustive tourism. “Aviation emissions is fundamentally the Achilles heel of our tourism industry.”

The debate is less around whether something should be done, Higham says, and more about how it should be structured. (He’s a fan of using the money collected from a departure tax on decarbonising domestic transport, but Upton says that would miss the point, as domestic emissions are covered by the ETS – “the problem’s not New Zealand, it’s international”.)

In a slightly narrative-busting comment, Massey University Professor Emeritus of energy and climate change mitigation Ralph Sims says heightened awareness hasn’t prompted enough people to change their behaviour. So it will naturally fall to the Government to regulate. “Fossil fuel users should be paying for the carbon involved in their emissions.”

“It’s time for decisions now about the future of tourism, and New Zealand’s place in the global tourism industry,” – Sir Jonathon Porritt

From great challenges come great opportunity – and this country has the chance to make a virtue of necessity. My colleague Rod Oram wrote about this last December.

“To absolutely thrive, the tourism sector needs to radically rethink its role in our natural environment, society and economy,” Oram wrote, suggesting this country become a leader, “making carbon-neutral tourism a defining goal of our ambitious new strategy”.

That’s central to Upton’s tax idea. The idea that in flying out of New Zealand, whether you’re a tourist, citizen or resident, you’re helping to support climate initiatives – like financing research into low-carbon fuels or decarbonising initiatives in the Pacific Islands.

Porritt, the Air NZ sustainability adviser, says connecting individual flyers with climate-related programmes, and making them feel they’re legitimately contributing to solving the problem, seems entirely appropriate. He is in favour of a frequent flyer levy, so those who travel the most pay more.

The shape of a carbon reduction programme will depend on what New Zealand, as a country, decides the future role of tourism will be, post-Covid, he says. Might New Zealand pitch itself to the world as a more accessible Bhutan? Or an affordable Galapagos?

“New Zealand’s got to think of itself differently,” Porritt says. “It can’t just think of itself as a country at the bottom of the world which wants as many international visitors as possible. It has got to totally reframe what its expectations are through to the middle of this century.

“It needs to be thinking much, much more about fewer visitors. Not necessarily fewer than the four million, but certainly no automatic assumption of increased growth.”

New Zealand will have to differentiate itself in a world of quality destinations, Porritt says – and quality will mean sustainable; “genuinely sustainable not phony, greenwash sustainable”.

“It’s time for decisions now about the future of tourism, and New Zealand’s place in the global tourism industry,” Porritt says. “I just want to see it spelt out much more starkly so that people start to understand the true nature of the trade-offs, basically.”

New Zealand should be seen as a place that treasures its natural human and cultural capital, he says, and invests in that. “And when you are lucky enough to get to New Zealand, you become an investor in that. And you pay for it.”

Rising emissions – but relatively sustainable?

Porritt says he’s impressed at how the sustainability agenda for Air NZ has been maintained through what has been, without doubt, the most difficult year in its history. “There is no pulling back from the commitments it has made.”

Newsroom asks what those commitments were.

In 2015, when Forum for the Future announced it was working with the airline, Porritt told TVNZ’s Q+A programme it was one of the few airlines in the world “getting serious about working out what that growth curve looks like if you have to peg your carbon emissions”.

The company’s latest sustainability report makes much of its fuel efficiency, an average saving of 1.8 percent a year (measured in revenue tonne kilometre). But that seems more about financial savings than climate.

Because as efficiency’s improved, the airline’s emissions have increased. Between 2015 to 2019 the company’s direction emissions increased 847,000 tonnes, or 27.5 percent, to 3.93 million tonnes. That was dented, somewhat, by its customers’ voluntary offsets, which last year was 92,000 tonnes, up from 63,000 tonnes. (There’s no breakdown of domestic to international offsets, but the average uptake is 7.1 percent.)

So, what is Air NZ’s commitment to sustainability?

Porritt says, defensively, the alternative is people won’t travel to New Zealand, and there’s no international tourism, “which in my opinion is a stupid way of addressing the climate crisis”.

Rather than a complete halt to flights. Newsroom suggests a track-record of sustainability might involve, perhaps, a well-financed biofuels programme, investing in alternative technologies, or a large-scale offset scheme.

An airline can’t grow without a growth in emissions, Porritt says. “It’s just the reality.”

Asked how much it has spent on research of low-carbon fuels and more efficient aircraft engines, Air NZ doesn’t offer any figure. Morgan, the chief operational integrity and safety officer, points to a test flight using the biofuel jatropha in 2008 (which didn’t convert to the ambition of a 10 percent sustainable fuel mix by 2013), support of the Government’s recent biofuels mandate, and its membership of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) Consortium.

(Its domestic emissions, covered by the ETS, cost the airline $15 million last year, to buy New Zealand units.)

Morgan says the airline’s been “an extremely vocal advocate” for low-carbon solutions with so-called original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs.

“We expect Covid-19 to accelerate the pace of technology development as OEMs are now skipping what would have been the next phase of jet evolution and moving straight to new technologies.

“Right now we consider hydrogen-powered aircraft to be the most promising future technology, given its high energy mass density, but we are also actively involved with companies developing battery-based technologies.”

Porritt says the airline’s sustainability is about relativity rather than an “absolute outcome”, and is more “rounded” than just emissions, extending to social issues and biodiversity. Its progress since 2015 has been “good”, he says, and he would put the company in the leading cohort of airlines.

“Air New Zealand has to be the best and fastest-moving airline in meeting that challenge.”

He adds: “I do feel very comfortable, still, as chair of the panel.”

In a TEDx talk in 2013, Porritt said he was excited about the looming pipeline of innovation to fight climate change.

He seems a bit more battle-weary now. “If you look at the world today, optimism is a brittle illusion,” Porritt says. “But I am hopeful that once we’re confronted with the true reality of the climate and the ecological emergencies that we can move much more effectively to address them.”

These emergencies haven’t been visible enough in enough people’s lives, Porritt says, but the impacts are now undeniable. “I’m definitely hopeful that we have time to do all of this.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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