Flight risk

Our love of travel is con­tribut­ing to global warm­ing, and air­lines are un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure to limit their cli­mate-dam­ag­ing emis­sions.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Re­becca Mac­fie

Our love of travel is con­tribut­ing hugely to global warm­ing, and air­lines are un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure to limit their cli­matedam­ag­ing emis­sions.

An­other cli­mate change re­port, an­other cause for alarm about the kind of fu­ture we are be­queath­ing to com­ing ­gen­er­a­tions. New Zealand’s ­glaciers have shrunk by a ­quar­ter in the past four decades, and the seas around our shores have risen by as much as 22cm in a cen­tury. Frosty morn­ings are ­be­com­ing rarer; soils are get­ting drier. Our oceans are be­com­ing more acidic as they ab­sorb higher loads of car­bon diox­ide (CO ) from the at­mos­phere, threat­en­ing 2 marine ecosys­tems. All this bad news is con­tained in a new re­port en­ti­tled “Our at­mos­phere and cli­mate 2017”, pub­lished last month by the Min­istry for the En­vi­ron­ment and Sta­tis­tics New Zealand. It con­firms that al­most all the trends are in the wrong di­rec­tion.

Our net green­house-gas emis­sions have risen 24% since 1990, and av­er­age tem­per­a­tures are 1°C warmer than at the start of the 20th cen­tury. Last year was the warm­est in New Zealand since 1909, and the five warm­est years on record all oc­curred in the past 20 years.

Even the sex ra­tios of tu­atara are be­ing dis­rupted by the chang­ing cli­mate. Warmer tem­per­a­tures dur­ing em­bry­onic de­vel­op­ment favour the males of the species and on North Brother Is­land in Cook Strait, the number of males has in­creased markedly rel­a­tive to fe­males in the past 30 years.

If New Zealand’s emis­sions are di­vided equally among all 4.8 mil­lion Ki­wis, we rank as the fifth-worst green­house-gas pol­luters in the OECD.

What’s the cli­mate-con­scious per­son to do? This writer de­cided it was time for a long-over­due au­dit of my own house­hold’s emis­sions to find out whether we were work­ing hard enough to shrink our com­fort­able, ur­ban mid­dle-class foot­print down to a fu­ture-friendly size. One by one, I ticked off the ar­eas that con­tribute most to per­sonal car­bon re­duc­tions:

Elim­i­nate food waste. They say that if we added up all the ed­i­ble food that goes to waste be­tween farm and fork, it would ac­count for 8% of global green­house-gas emis­sions. Well, I can’t do much about mis­shapen car­rots or wrong-size cab­bages left to rot in the field, but there’s zero food waste to land­fill from our house: the worm farm gets the peel­ings and scraps. Get out of the car and onto a bike. Ki­wis have the high­est rate of car own­er­ship in the OECD, and road trans­port ac­counts for 78% of the in­crease in New Zealand’s emis­sions since 1990. My con­science is pretty clear on this, too: my e-bike takes me ev­ery­where around town.

Cut down on red-meat con­sump­tion. Ru­mi­nant live­stock are re­spon­si­ble for 14.5% of global emis­sions, and it’s uni­ver­sally agreed that we won’t reach global cli­mate goals un­less the cit­i­zens of the over-fed rich world cut back sig­nif­i­cantly on meat-eat­ing. Tick. Red meat has be­come a rar­ity in our kitchen; lentils are now the de­fault pro­tein source.

Get an elec­tric ve­hi­cle. And charge it off-peak when there is re­new­able en­ergy to spare on the grid. Yep, done that too (al­though a fos­sil-fuel car is kept in re­serve for long trips).

I put the de­tails of our house­hold of two into the on­line car­bon cal­cu­la­tor, and felt a vir­tu­ous glow as our waste, en­ergy and lo­cal trans­port emis­sions came in well be­low the New Zealand av­er­age.

But then I had to con­front the jumbo jet in the room. The com­puter pro­gram asked for the de­tails of all flights I had taken in the past year: Lon­don; San Fran­cisco; a cou­ple of cheap hops from Stansted to Scan­di­navia; nu­mer­ous do­mes­tic flights from Christchurch to Auck­land, Welling­ton, Dunedin, Nel­son.

The com­puter didn’t care whether the flights were for ter­ri­bly im­por­tant work, to visit el­derly fam­ily mem­bers or to at­tend a fu­neral or a wed­ding (or even, in the case of my flight to Lon­don, to re­search cli­mate pol­icy). It just added up the vol­ume of planet-warm­ing emis­sions pro­duced.

Sud­denly, our house­hold car­bon foot­print swelled from mod­est to enor­mous. All our re­cy­cling, waste-re­duc­ing, lentil-eat­ing, cy­cling and EV-driv­ing ef­forts were un­done by the 20 tonnes of car­bon diox­ide-equiv­a­lents pro­duced by two peo­ple who fly a lot.

What do 20 tonnes of green­house gases look like? Imag­ine a stack of three shipping con­tain­ers; that’s one tonne. Now imag­ine that bulk mul­ti­plied by 20.

A mid-win­ter break in Bali? That’ll be 2.5 tonnes of CO2 equiv­a­lents. A week­end of re­tail ther­apy in Syd­ney? Add 816kg of emis­sions.


Ac­cord­ing to the UK Com­mit­tee on Cli­mate Change, if the world is to keep within the Paris cli­mate ac­cord goal of less than 2°C of warm­ing, av­er­age car­bon emis­sions per per­son need to re­duce to two tonnes a year by 2050 (cur­rently the global av­er­age is about five tonnes). Yet in one re­turn trip to Lon­don I’d pumped three-and-a-half times that much into the at­mos­phere. Keen on a mid-win­ter break in Bali? That’ll be 2.5 tonnes of car­bon diox­ide-equiv­a­lents. Tempted by a cheap flight to Syd­ney for a show or a week­end of re­tail ther­apy? Add 816kg of cli­mate-warm­ing emis­sions to the bill.

A re­cent pa­per by re­searchers Seth Wynes and Kim­berly Ni­cholas, pub­lished in the open-ac­cess jour­nal ­En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­search Let­ters, says that avoid­ing air­line travel is one of the four most im­por­tant things you can do to limit global warm­ing (the oth­ers are hav­ing one less child, go­ing car-free and eat­ing a plant-based diet).

Al­though avi­a­tion is re­spon­si­ble for only about 2% of to­tal green­house-gas emis­sions, it is one of the fastest-grow­ing sources, par­tic­u­larly as the ex­pand­ing num­bers of the mid­dle class in de­vel­op­ing economies join the ranks of globe-trot­ting hol­i­day­mak­ers and busi­ness trav­ellers.

Christo­pher Luxon, Air New Zealand’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, ac­knowl­edges that avi­a­tion emis­sions present his com­pany – and the global in­dus­try – with an “epic” chal­lenge. Ac­cord­ing to the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion,

in­ter­na­tional avi­a­tion emis­sions will be about 70% higher by 2020 than they were in 2005, and the In­ter­na­tional Civil Avi­a­tion Or­gan­i­sa­tion (ICAO) – a United Na­tions agency – fore­casts that by 2050 they could grow a fur­ther 300-700%.

And air­craft emis­sions are not lim­ited to CO : ac­cord­ing to an OECD pa­per, Green 2 Growth and the Fu­ture of Avi­a­tion, planes also pro­duce ni­tro­gen ox­ides, volatile or­ganic com­pounds, car­bon monox­ide and black car­bon, all of which af­fect cli­mate. The emis­sion of aerosols and wa­ter vapour also form con­trails (the long white streaks that mark a plane’s pass­ing), which also have an ef­fect on the cli­mate, “al­beit one that has proven ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to quan­tify”. The Avi­a­tion En­vi­ron­ment Fed­er­a­tion, a UK non-profit group, says it is es­ti­mated that these ad­di­tional ef­fects will in­crease the global warm­ing im­pact of avi­a­tion by about 1.9 times that of car­bon diox­ide alone.

Tech­nol­ogy has de­liv­ered big im­prove­ments in air­craft de­sign over the decades – the air­line in­dus­try says planes are 80% more fuel-ef­fi­cient than in the 1960s – but those gains have been out­weighed by the over­all growth in de­mand for flights. Ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Air Trans­port As­so­ci­a­tion (IATA), in 2017 there will be 37.5 mil­lion flights and 4 bil­lion pas­sen­ger move­ments, up from 25 mil­lion flights and 2.1 bil­lion pas­sen­gers in 2005.

The number of pas­sen­ger air­craft in the air is set to dou­ble by 2025 and IATA fore­casts that de­mand for air travel will al­most dou­ble again to 7.5 bil­lion pas­sen­gers by 2035. The big­gest growth will come from the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion: China is ex­pected to be­come the world’s big­gest avi­a­tion mar­ket by 2024, and In­dia is pre­dicted to be­come the third big­gest.


And all that fly­ing is pri­mar­ily done by priv­i­leged peo­ple like me; most peo­ple in the world never set foot in a plane. Ac­cord­ing to an es­ti­mate by a re­tired Air Trans­port As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica di­rec­tor of safety, Tom Far­rier, on the crowd-sourced data site

Air New Zealand CEO Christo­pher Luxon: emis­sions are an “epic” chal­lenge for global avi­a­tion.

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