This is a guest post by Paul Callister and Wallace Rae.
As Auckland transitions from an ‘overgrown town’ to a ‘world-class city’, it faces many challenges. These aren’t just related to liveability concerns from our sprawling land use and high car dependency. They also include our reliance on aviation, which creates a significant and growing part of New Zealand’s transport related greenhouse gas emissions.
Source: Robert McLachlan.
A world-class city responds to the climate crisis with leadership. With our C40 membership, Auckland is required to have a plan to deliver its contribution towards the goal of constraining global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees C.
For businesses to invest in low-carbon technologies and processes, predictable regulation change is required. Similarly, as we are encouraged to make lifestyle changes, policy needs to be clearly equitable. How do we establish coherent strategies around who, if anyone, should pay less than the full cost of their greenhouse gas emissions? For aviation to be a positive part of our economy and our climate response, we need to understand the trends, impacts and opportunities in the industry and how to mitigate impacts.
The introduction to the recently published New Zealand Tourism Strategy summary states
International visitor arrivals have grown by 43 percent in the last five years
This increase in tourism growth is projected to continue. International visitor arrivals in the September 2019 year were 3.9 million, and are forecast to reach more than five million by 2024; Auckland airport is currently planning for 40 million passengers per year to pass through their facility by 2040, up from 21 million passenger movements in the August 2019 year.
As the largest city in New Zealand, with the airport that brings in and sends out by far the most passengers, what happens in Auckland will be key to decarbonising New Zealand aviation.
Other New Zealand sectors, including farming and urban public transport, are being put on notice to begin a programme of greenhouse gas reductions. So how do we realistically decarbonise the aviation industry?
The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 and entered into force in 2005. It requested Parties to work through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to reduce emissions from the sector. Despite this “request”, ICAO shows that emissions have risen.
At the moment there is a heavy reliance on efficiency gains and offsets. Domestic aviation is part of the Emissions Trading Scheme but the far bigger emitter, international flying, is not. The current solution to international emissions rests heavily on CORSIA. This is a UN agreement designed to help the aviation industry make all growth in international flights after 2020 “carbon neutral”. Until non fossil based fuels become widely available, it is primarily an offset scheme. It also only covers growth, not baseline levels of emissions.
While the New Zealand government and Air New Zealand support the implementation of CORSIA, not all countries do and not all airlines flying in and out of New Zealand will participate. Importantly, CORSIA’s rules only applies if the countries at both ends of a flight are members. CORSIA will first be implemented as a voluntary system from 2021–2026 and will be mandatory from 2027–2035, when it will apply to all ICAO member countries, with the exception of some developing countries and small markets. CORSIA also excludes emissions of other climate pollutants from aviation, including black carbon and nitrogen oxides.
Source: August 2019 cabinet paper, https://www.transport.govt.nz/about/governance/cabinet-papers
Currently hardly any airline passengers voluntarily pay for offsets and, for a variety of reasons, offsets are often ineffective. Forest based offsets require estimates of aircraft emissions, estimates of carbon uptake by forests (which vary by species and geographic location) and a carbon price based on robust evidence of costs associated with carbon use. The forests have to be permanent yet there is a risk that fire or disease may destroy them.
Source: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/graph/16842/carbon-sinks (accessed 10 November 2019)
The energy involved in aviation is large, meaning there’s a practical limit to offsetting. A paper by Smith and Rodger (2009) calculated the forest offsets which would be required for visitors to New Zealand in 2005. They based their calculations on regenerating native forest with a relatively low carbon uptake rather than newly planted forest which can have much higher carbon absorption rates. When considering these estimates, any calculations for recent years would have to be much higher, given the growth in tourism, but could also be lowered somewhat if it was new pine plantations being considered.
In order to offset the 2005 visitor emissions, 26,300km2 of regenerating forest would be required. This is the size of 15 Stewart Islands, or 10% of the country’s total land area.
Already there is concern being expressed about the amount of land being converted to forests, especially pines, for offsets in New Zealand. As argued by the New Zealand Parliamentary Commission for the Environment, offsetting carbon produced from fossil fuels is not an effective decarbonisation strategy. There is a worry that urban people will be dumping their decarbonisation problems onto rural New Zealand.
Source: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/photograph/16776/radiata-pine-plantation (accessed 10 November 2019)
The price of carbon is also crucial. The Productivity Commission says the price may need to be $NZ250/tonne of CO2e by 2050 for New Zealand to reach our climate goals. Quoting Concept Consulting (2017), the commission estimates that an emissions price of $NZ100 per tonne could reduce domestic air travel demand by up to 12%. Yet the offset prices voluntarily added to tickets or as part of the CORSIA scheme are nowhere near this level.
The August CORSIA cabinet discussion paper has an example of flying between the UK and China. The offset is seen as being between US$3 and US$9 per person (this is about NZ$5 to $14 per per person). At a similar level to this, the voluntary carbon offsetting that Air NZ’s offsetting programme offers for this flight would be $13.50.
However, using the Resurgence CO2 Calculator (a calculator often recommended) this 10 hour flight emits 1.92 tonnes CO2e per passenger. At the carbon prices discussed by the Productivity Commission, this would add $192 (at $100/tonne) or $480 (at $250/tonne) for the flight.
New Zealand’s domestic aviation emissions have been kept relatively stable since 1990 due to technological improvements in aircraft. But historically the efficiency gains have always been swamped by expansion of international markets. The NZ Cabinet paper discussing CORSIA makes the point that ‘projected annual improvements in aircraft fuel efficiency of around 1 to 2 percent are surpassed by forecast traffic growth of around 5 percent each year.’
International energy expert Michael Liebreich recently visited Auckland. He was reported in the Spinoff, 13th July 2019 as saying
New Zealand should be pushing much harder on finding ways to do aviation more sustainably. Without the ability to fly in and out, New Zealand’s got a problem. It’s an existentially important thing and I’m not seeing the level of urgency and creativity around solutions. Is it biofuels? Is it synthetic fuels? Is it the electrification of your domestic aviation? Is it electrification of your ferries? Given the geographic location of New Zealand, I expected to see much more concern if you’re trying to be net zero by 2050.
Wallace Rae and I have delved into the international literature to try and find how aviation might be decarbonised. It is clearly a major challenge. Our findings are set out in a working paper published by Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies. We hope that this will help generate some of the debate, and ultimately action, Michael Liebreich suggests is urgently needed.
The working paper drew on ideas first presented on the Pure Advantage website.