Cheap, convenient flying has become entangled in our economy and in the lifestyle of many well-off people but we can’t keep ignoring the carbon emissions of the aviation industry
On 2 December 2020, New Zealand became the sixteenth country in the world to declare a climate emergency, triggering a flood of calls for us to match the rhetoric with actual cuts to emissions. Even Greta Thunberg called us out.
There is an element of truth to that cry. But, to be fair, cutting emissions does require planning, and in several key areas, like electricity and land transport, planning is well underway. We can expect to see significant announcements on these in 2021.
But one large chunk of emissions is hardly on the radar: aviation. Aviation is responsible for 14 percent of New Zealand’s CO2 emissions. From 1990 to 2018, it grew from 2.3 million to 5 million tonnes of CO2, part of a global trend that saw aviation projected to triple further by 2050. If that comes it pass, it will be consuming the entire remaining carbon budget of the earth.
The Covid Pause
Now Covid-19 has given us a small breathing space in terms of New Zealand’s rapidly growing aviation emissions. It has also provided some time to consider ways for not only reducing them, but reaching the required zero emissions in the next few decades. But ironically, through the Government’s commitment to keeping New Zealand Covid-free, helped by some taxpayer support, domestic aviation has shown a strong bounce back. And with a vaccine on the horizon, many in New Zealand and overseas hope that the jab will allow them to fly again internationally.
The new year will see a number of developments. First, the Climate Change Commission will release carbon budgets. In the area of transport they are certain to show a need to dramatically reduce emissions.
Second, the report of Tourism Futures Taskforce is due. Given its strong representation of traditional tourism businesses, it may push for a return to the previous growth path.
Third, the report on sustainable tourism from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment will be released. Judging from the issues raised in the Commissioner’s earlier study, it would be surprising if aviation were not a central theme.
But we want to keep flying. Can it ever be sustainable?
Outside these official systems others have also been considering ways aviation can be decarbonised. A study by one of us (Paul Callister) together with industrial chemist Wallace Rae considered a range of options if we wanted to keep flying. We concluded that, in the short to medium term, sustainable aviation fuel, produced by a “Power to Fuel” (P2F) process was the only realistic path. But if produced in New Zealand, it would use a significant amount of renewable electricity, and it would not be cheap.
Along with other measures to reduce flying, this is the main option promoted by the responsible tourism sector based in the UK. It has also been endorsed by Air New Zealand in their 2020 sustainability report as well as by Professor Susanne Becken writing in the just released 100% Pure Future: New Zealand Tourism Renewed (BWB Texts, December 2020).
Unlike electric aircraft, which in the coming decade may be available for short, low-volume flights, or highly speculative hydrogen aircraft, the Power-to-Fuel solution does not require new planes.
There is already one Power-to-Fuel plant under construction in Norway (Norsk E-fuel, fuelled by plentiful hydropower) and a much larger one proposed in Chile (Haru Oni, to be fuelled by the plentiful wind at the Straits of Magellan). These are large investments – similar to what New Zealand undertook when we built the Motunui methanol plant in the 1980s. Ironically, Motunui was part of an industrial development strategy that locked us into high fossil fuel use for decades to come.
Sounds expensive. What’s the alternative?
Other commentators argue that using such a huge amount of electricity, all needing to come from renewable energy, is a fantasy. That, in fact, we need to significantly reduce our overall energy consumption and with that our expectations of flying.
In fact, flying is a sensitive subject. Just raising the question of aviation emissions seems to produce a kind of cognitive dissonance, even amongst those who understand the need to stop burning fossil fuels. Cheap, convenient flying has become entangled in our economy and in the way of life of many well-off people.
Back in 2019, visiting energy expert Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, was surprised to find so little discussion in New Zealand about decarbonising aviation, given our geographic position in the world and our heavy dependence on flying. Now the debate is starting: there are arguments about possible taxpayer subsidies to save the uneconomic Kāpiti airport, about the extra emissions that a new international airport at Tarras would cause, about potential expansions of Wellington and Auckland airports.
The free ride for aviation is over.