Transport Minister Michael Wood says no climate impact assessment was needed when the Government budgeted hundreds of millions of dollars to allow more than 2000 additional international flights to take place in 2021 and 2022.

That’s despite Cabinet’s own rules requiring an assessment of the emissions impact of all policies which are likely to lead to more than half a million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

Numbers obtained by Newsroom under the Official Information Act reveal the extra flights support by public money were very likely to emit above the threshold for a climate vetting.

Stuff first reported in October that no Climate Implications of Policy Assessment (CIPA) was conducted for the Government’s international air freight subsidy, called the Maintaining International Air Connectivity (MIAC) scheme.

At the time, Wood said this was because international aviation emissions would still be below pre-pandemic levels, even with the additional Government support. This was also the explanation used in internal documents.

“A Climate Implications of Policy Assessment (CIPA) has not been prepared for this paper. The proposal recommends providing financial support for fossil fuel intensive international air transport, which creates greenhouse gas emissions,” Wood wrote in a March 2021 Cabinet paper which extended the scheme for 11 months.

“Even with this support it should be recognised that the total number of flights per week operating to and from New Zealand would still be less than a quarter of the number of flights operating prior to Covid-19. This represents a sizable reduction in the emissions attributable to New Zealand’s international air services.”

The exact same wording was used in a paper this year which extended MIAC for a further 12 months.

However, Cabinet’s CIPA requirements make no reference to comparisons to a pre-pandemic baseline.

A CIPA is triggered when a non-forestry policy is intended to reduce emissions or when “the direct impact on greenhouse gas emissions is likely to be equal to or above 0.5 million tonnes CO2-e within the first ten years of the proposal period”.

Policies which meet this threshold go through a deeper vetting of their emissions impacts, with projected emissions increases or reductions reported in the Cabinet paper. The Government can still approve policies which raise emissions, but the assessment is meant to ensure decision-making takes climate impacts into account.

“Ensuring Ministers are aware of the implications a decision may have for New Zealand’s future greenhouse gas emissions will be vital to ensuring we are all playing our part in meeting the commitments we’ve made,” Climate Change Minister James Shaw said when CIPAs were first implemented in 2019.

“I’m delighted that we’ve developed a tool for the whole government to easily assess whether policies we’re considering at Cabinet will increase or reduce the emissions that impact on New Zealanders’ quality of life in decades to come.”

According to the March 2021 Cabinet paper, between 45 and 55 fewer international flights would take off each week if the subsidy was allowed to lapse. Over 11 months, therefore, the MIAC scheme supported an additional 2160 to 2640 journeys – most of which were long haul, not merely trans-Tasman.

Transport Minister Michael Wood still insists no CIPA was needed for the subsidy extensions. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“The severity of impact of removal of the [MIAC] would fall unevenly across different markets, with the Pacific and North America being the worst affected and Australia being the least affected,” the March paper stated. The scheme also funded flights to “key tourism markets”, including Dubai, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Robert McLachlan, a distinguished professor in mathematics at the University of Auckland, said two methods to calculate climate impacts of international flights would both indicate the 2021 extension emitted more than the required 500,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases to trigger a CIPA.

Even if the flights flew with no passengers and half empty, he said, emissions would come close to 600,000 tonnes.

Green Party transport spokesperson Julie Anne Genter said a CIPA should have been conducted for the extension of the airfreight subsidy.

“Climate analysis should be applied to all significant decisions and it should have been applied to this one and to similar decisions in the future. This is about Cabinet having good information for decision-making, so they can make well informed decisions and understand the trade-offs,” she said.

“Clearly supporting airlines to bring medicines to Aotearoa New Zealand and support our export freight was important during lockdown, but that’s not a reason to ignore the climate implications. If ‘every minister is a climate change minister’ now, then CIPA can help them incorporate climate into all their major decisions.”

When presented with McLachlan’s calculations, Wood changed his reasoning for why a CIPA was not needed.

“The purpose of the Climate Implications of Policy Assessment is to report on the policy impact of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions to help understand how New Zealand is tracking to meet our emissions reduction commitments. This assessment focuses on changes in domestic emissions. As the MIAC scheme affects mainly international aviation emissions, an assessment was not required,” Wood said on Friday.

The CIPA requirements do not mention the word “domestic” and this reasoning doesn’t appear in the Cabinet papers where Wood said a CIPA was not needed.

“While it’s important to carry out Climate Implications of Policy Assessment for policy proposals, with specific respect to the MIAC extension, emissions from air travel had decreased significantly during the pandemic, with our broader policy objective focusing on ensuring minimum connectivity with our key partners so that critical imports, such as urgently required PPE and medical supplies could be flown to New Zealand,” he added on Friday.

“Our broader focus concentrates on reducing aviation-related emissions, with identified actions set out in New Zealand’s first Emissions Reduction Plan (responding to the Climate Change Commission’s 2021 report) and work the International Civil Aviation Organization is progressing to reduce emissions from the international aviation sector. Climate Implications of Policy Assessment for policy proposals will continue to be an important consideration as we work to achieve carbon zero.”

Earlier this year, Wood also told Newsroom that flights would still have operated without MIAC. That conflicted with his own Cabinet paper where he said international flights would fall by up to a third if the scheme wasn’t extended.

Wood didn’t answer Newsroom’s questions about this discrepancy.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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