Our love of travel is contributing to global warming, and airlines are under increasing pressure to limit their climate-damaging emissions.
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.
FLYING INTO DISASTER
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.
THE END OF THE RUNWAY
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.