Hiking cost of getting to NZ ‘good’ thing, says Air NZ adviser [Newsroom, 09/02/21]

The national airline’s chief environmental advisor supports price hikes which would put some people off flying here and curb “thoughtless, heedless tourism”, David Williams reports

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”.

Read this in full here.

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