New airport at Tarras would drive rapid increases in greenhouse gas emissions

By Paul Callister and Robert McLachlan

Mike Kelley, “Flughafen Zürich 28 and 16 (Visual Separation)”, a montage of many actual departures. From “Civilisation, Photography, Now“, Auckland Art Gallery.

Last year a headline in the Australian Business Insider stated ‘Wednesday was one of the busiest recorded days in aviation history — and it’s going to keep getting busier’. More than 225,000 flights took to the skies on Wednesday, July 24 2019. But as Covid-19 started to spread around the world, the Flightradar24 site showed that flights plummeted to a low of just over 40,000 in early April. However, backed by significant government bailouts, they are now steadily rising, reaching over 140,000 per day.

Before Covid-19, aviation formed a significant part of global greenhouse gas emissions that almost entirely escaped regulation.  Jet fuel is responsible for 2.8% of global CO2 emissions. Other impacts of flying, known as radiative forcing, take the total impact to over 5%. Total air travel has grown 80% by 2009 and is projected to triple by 2050.  This is why a report for the UK Department of Transport concluded that

achieving a 1.5°C target will become irreconcilable with any continued fossil fuel usage by aviation at some point around the middle of the present century… Since aviation’s current goals are inconsistent with the Paris Agreement, in the absence of additional measures, then more ambitious goals should be set.

New Zealand charges no fuel duty on international flights, nor are the emissions covered under the Emissions Trading Scheme. There is no GST on international flights. In fact, the emissions are not even counted in our national greenhouse accounts, or in our greenhouse gas targets. These relative advantages have contributed to rapid growth of our international aviation emissions, which (until recently!) were up 33% in three years. In turn, the combination of a rapid growth of tourism with the global pandemic has created a particular problem.

Simon Upton, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, reported shortly before the lockdown on the environmental impact of tourism growth in New Zealand. He devotes a lot of attention to aviation, but concluded that

It appears to be a potentially existential risk that is being fatalistically run on the basis that for the moment there are no practical solutions and no imminent sign of concerted and stringent policy action.

This growth didn’t just happen

If “build it and they will come” applies to the capacity of the aviation sector, it is not surprising that flight numbers are forecast to expand. Planned expansions, coupled with heavy advertising and rewards schemes, mean the forecasts seemed to have every chance of “success”. Auckland Airport is planning for 40 million passengers per year by 2040, up from 21 million today. Wellington Airport’s billion-dollar upgrade, intended to double  traffic by 2040, is now on hold due to the pandemic. 

So the proposal for a new international airport at Tarras fits into a past pattern of rapid growth combined with a refusal to acknowledge its impact. Christchurch City Council (the majority owner of the airport) has a bold plan for Christchurch to reach net zero emissions by 2045. But its claimed emissions of 2.2 million tonnes CO2e per year don’t include international arrivals or departures. Those added another 1.7 million tonnes in 2019. Likewise, Queenstown Airport, which tripled traffic in the past decade to 2.4 million passengers in 2019 releasing about 0.8 million tonnes of CO2e, anticipated a further tripling by 2045. This demand growth, if facilitated by a new airport, and underwritten by government ownership, would mean extra emissions of 1.6 million tonnes a year, or even more if some travellers start from further away than the east coast of Australia.

The way forward

There are two kinds of fatalism. The optimistic kind says that technology will save us and we will muddle through regardless. The pessimistic kind says we’re doomed and there’s no point doing anything. Both are wrong. But in a difficult situation, we have to start with small steps.

The international No Fly and Fly-Less movements are starting to have an effect. In a pre-Covid survey, 75% of European respondents planned to fly less for holidays in 2020. In China the number was 94%, and in the US, 69%. Domestic air travel was already notably down in the UK, Sweden, and Germany. The EU is considering charging duty on jet fuel, similar to what is done for petrol. Our new Climate Commission will advise on whether to bring international transport into the ETS – a solution that has also been proposed internationally – but not until 2024. 

We are at the start of a decade in which the government’s stated aim is to reduce New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels. To have any hope of achieving this goal, all sectors of the economy, including aviation, need to dramatically and permanently reduce their emissions. 

Conversely, doing nothing would risk diverting ever more investment into an unsustainable part of our society and place the Net Zero 2050 goal in jeopardy. Even otherwise environmentally-aware travelers are in denial about the significance of their air travel emissions. It’s time to accept responsibility and to start choosing solutions.

This article appeared first in Stuff on 25 July 2020. Read the original article.

2 thoughts on “New airport at Tarras would drive rapid increases in greenhouse gas emissions

  1. Yes, in addition, some (few) airlines have a ‘feel good’ emissions offset programme – which is good and allows flyers to contribute to reducing their carbon emissions. However, the offset cost the airlines allocate does not equate to the cost of actually taking the CO2 from the atmosphere. Eg. A flight from Europe equates to 1 tonne of CO2e emissions. The cost allocated to the ticket to offset these emissions does not consider the cost of capital for the land which trees are planted onto etc.

    Many travel options still do not offer carbon offset when purchasing tickets. Qatar, one of the few airlines operating international flights during Covid (eg. UK to NZ) do not offer options to offset a travellers travel emissions, nor does Expedia – just to name a couple.

    How can we, people who travel, effectively offset our own emissions?

    1. Yes, the offsets would have to be real, additional (i.e. wouldn’t have happened otherwise) and permanent. They can be hard to trace. You can purchase New Zealand forest carbon offsets at It would be nice to have an option that permanently reduces fossil fuel burning.

      On the other hand, Parke Wilde at the Flying Less blog says “If your flight really is essential, don’t offset! Own your emissions!”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s