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The real cost of air travel to the environment

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Our love of travel is contributing to global warming, and airlines are under increasing pressure to limit their climate-damaging 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 (CO2) from the atmosphere, threatening 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.

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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.

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

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 CO2: according to an OECD paper, Green 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.

A Pipistrel Taurus Electro electric two-seater in a 2015 demonstration. Photo/Getty Images

The end of the runaway

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 Quora, as little as 6% of the world’s population takes a flight in any given year.

So, what’s the future for frequent flyers? Can aviation move beyond its dependence on fossil fuels? Will we have electric planes? Do we just need to stop flying, or at least fly less? For New Zealand, which relies on tourism and international trade connections for its economic survival, the second possibility would present a profound challenge.

Since taking the top job at Air New Zealand in 2013, Luxon has pushed hard to boost the airline’s sustainability credentials. It has a partnership with the Department of Conservation to support intensive predator-control work, it backs Antarctic research and it helps with the reintroduction of rare native birds into the wild. It has lobbied for a tougher and more comprehensive emissions-trading scheme (it currently covers two-thirds of Air New Zealand’s and Jetstar’s emissions from domestic flights, and is forecast to reach 100% by 2019).

Its light-vehicle fleet has been converted to electric cars and it is electrifying ground service equipment such as loaders and pushback tugs. It’s reducing inflight waste, by diverting unopened consumables back onto flights and finding a way to recycle its wax-coated inflight coffee cups.

Rather than pushing for endless growth in the number of tourists coming to New Zealand – with an associated increase in emissions – Luxon says the company is trying to position this country at the premium end of the tourism market. He says the airline wants New Zealand to be “the Switzerland, not the Cancún, of tourism”, and thinks it’s possible to extract an additional $9 billion in value from the tourists coming already by selling “richer experiences” and higher-quality itineraries.

The airline has also spent $3 billion on modernising its fleet of planes and will spend another $1.5 billion in the next two or three years. The fleet, seven years old on average, is “the most modern, fuel-efficient, lowest-average fleet age of any airline of our type in the world”, says Luxon. “Most airlines have a 10-20-year aircraft age. And the older the aircraft, the less fuel-efficient.”

But still the emissions keep rising. This year, Air New Zealand pumped about 3.4 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. A 6.3% growth in its network has been accompanied by a 5.1% growth in emissions, despite all those modern planes that, Luxon says, are typically 20-25% more efficient than their predecessors, and despite fuel-efficiency measures such as a new scheme to run planes’ air conditioning and lighting on electricity when they are parked at airport gates rather than on auxiliary power units burning jet fuel.

Zunum Aero’s small hybrid-electric 12-seater commuter is being developed with backing from Boeing and JetBlue. Photo/Getty Images

It’s been a decade since Air New Zealand ran a test flight using fuel derived from jatropha nuts grown in Africa. The chief executive at the time, Rob Fyfe, described it as “a defining moment” in the development of a more sustainable future for aviation. It was predicted that biofuels would be a reality for commercial flights within five years. But it hasn’t happened.

“I have exhausted and gone through every single global proposal from everywhere in the world, and nothing is scalable,” says Luxon. “There is not an example in the world where we have scalable biofuels.”

The problem is simple, he says: aircraft use a huge amount of fuel – it takes around 100,000 litres to fly from Auckland to Los Angeles – and no one has been able to come up with a steady supply of biofuel that could meet the demand.

Last year, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia called for proposals from the biofuel sector for the supply of 20 million litres by 2020. They heard from 30 companies, but Luxon says none could meet the requirement, although Air New Zealand’s head of sustainability, Lisa Daniell, is continuing to work with two of them. The airline is also talking to Z Energy, the fuel company behind a new Auckland plant that makes biofuel from tallow, a waste product from the meat industry.

Luxon lived for years in the US when vast tracts of the Midwest were turned over to corn production for ethanol, so he is well aware of the unintended consequences of biofuels and their potential to displace food production. In the long term, he thinks, woody biomass from forestry waste is the most likely option for New Zealand biofuel development, “but, again, there is no scalability to any of those efforts”.

The development of a sustainable biofuels supply hasn’t been helped by the fracking boom in the US, which has kept the price of oil low and made it harder for alternative fuels to compete, he says.

In October, Qantas announced a major biofuels push, declaring that its Los Angeles-based aircraft will be powered by biofuel from 2020. Over the next 10 years, the Australian airline will buy 30 million litres of fuel from US bioenergy company SG Preston, to be used on flights from LA to Australia. The fuel will be 50% renewable from non-food-plant oils, blended with normal jet fuel, and will emit half the CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, the Queensland Government has announced that Brisbane Airport will become a hub for aviation biofuel: in a two-year trial, a partnership between Virgin Australia and US biofuel company Gevo, “biojet” will be delivered through the airport’s normal fuel-supply infrastructure. The fuel, made from sugarcane waste, molasses, wood waste and agave, will initially be imported from the US, but Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is pushing for the development of a local biofuel sector and the state government has published a “Biofutures Roadmap”, which envisages a A$1 billion ($1.12 billion) biofuel, bioplastic and biochemical industry over the next decade.

EasyJet chief executive Carolyn McCall says short-haul electric planes are “now a matter of when, not if”. Photo/Getty Images

Battery charges

What about battery technology? Could it revolutionise flying in the way it is transforming the car industry? Low-cost UK airline EasyJet recently announced a push towards electric battery-powered commercial planes for short distances, which it says could be in the air within the next 10 to 20 years. It has partnered with US start-up Wright Electric, which says it will build a plane capable of flying 335km and carrying 220 passengers.

EasyJet chief executive Carolyn McCall was quoted as saying she could see “a future without jet fuel … it is now more a matter of when, not if, a short-haul electric plane will fly”.

And Seattle start-up Zunum Aero – backed by Boeing and JetBlue – recently announced plans to build a small hybrid-electric commuter plane capable of carrying 12 passengers. It has longer-term ambitions to develop a 50-seat electric aircraft that can fly 1000km.

Such developments have piqued Luxon’s interest, particularly as Air New Zealand flies so many short-haul domestic routes.

“It’s very nascent, very emergent technology,” he says. “We have been reached out to in just the past two months by people who could do electric planes. And we are in a better position to explore it because New Zealand has primarily renewable energy, and we are also unique because we fly small planes – everything from 350 seats down to 50-seaters. If we could move the [regional] turboprop fleet to fully electric planes, that could be a technology breakthrough that could really work for us.”

At any given moment, thousands of planes are in the air, each spewing thousands of tonnes of CO2.

Offset programmes

But the prospect of a techno-fix for aviation’s emissions is still a long way off. In the meantime, the only way to reduce the impact of flying on the climate is by offsetting – paying someone else to reduce emissions by, say, planting a forest or building a windfarm or solar array.

Airlines offer offset programmes, but few customers take up the option. Jetstar New Zealand says 3-8% of customers tick the offsetting box when buying a ticket online: the money goes to projects such as rainforest protection in Papua New Guinea and wildfire prevention in the West Australian savannah.

Luxon says the uptake of Air New Zealand’s offsets – the money from which goes to projects run by the Native Forest Restoration Trust – has increased since it took a leaf from the behavioural economics textbooks and elevated the profile of its offsetting option on its online booking site. In September, customers offset 10,000 journeys, compared with only 100 in September last year. Luxon also wants to see more corporate travellers ticking the offset box.

But the era of untrammelled growth in aviation emissions is almost over. For years, international aviation and shipping were left out of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change because they were not easily managed within individual countries’ carbon targets. The International Civil Aviation Organisation and International Maritime Organisation were given the job of figuring out how the respective sectors would control their emissions, but little progress was made.

The 2015 Paris climate agreement also excluded the two sectors. But in October 2016, a new global agreement was struck to develop a scheme to ensure that future growth in international flights will be carbon-neutral. From the baseline year of 2020, airlines that comply with the scheme – which will be voluntary until 2026 – will have to offset any increase in emissions.

The agreement followed mounting pressure on airlines to do something about their contribution to climate change, says IATA chief economist Brian Pearce, who also sits on Air New Zealand’s sustainability advisory panel. The European Union has been moving to include international airlines flying to European airports in the region’s emissions-trading scheme, and opposition to a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport has focused on the impact that the increase in air traffic would have on the UK’s strict carbon budget.

Luxon says Air New Zealand has raised the profile of offsetting on its online booking site. Photo/Getty Images

“There was a growing realisation from the industry that it really needed to get on the front foot,” says Pearce. “The constraints on the industry were growing, and it made sense to have a global scheme that didn’t have competitive distortions.”

The upshot of the deal will be a major increase in demand for carbon credits to offset the expected growth in emissions. Pearce says airline ticket prices will go up as a result of the global deal. “The extent of increase will depend on how much it costs to [buy] carbon offsets, but most calculations suggest there may be a 1-2% increase on ticket prices.” Given that the global price of carbon is widely tipped to rise substantially in coming decades, however, it seems reasonable to assume that impost will increase.

The global offsetting scheme is called the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia). Daniell says airlines representing 90% of international air traffic have already agreed to enter the scheme during its pilot and voluntary stages. Measurement and verification processes are being developed, but decisions are yet to be made about the type of carbon credits that airlines will be able to use to defray their emissions above the 2020 baseline.

Depending on the price of carbon, the annual cost to Air New Zealand could be $10-20 million “easily”, Luxon says. “So it’s a big commitment, but you have to do it, and you want to do it and it’s the right thing to do.

“Sometimes we can intellectualise these things, and it might be imperfect and messy at the beginning, but the big thing is we actually are going to make a start and learn by doing. We have declared the goal, and now we have to work out how we are going to do it. But you can’t socialise the cost and commercialise the benefit.”

He says Air New Zealand would prefer to buy its offsets from New Zealand programmes, particularly those that fund the regeneration of native bush and not only soak up carbon but also have benefits for soil conservation, water quality, biodiversity and local communities. But there are difficulties: it’s hard to find enough property owners willing to turn large enough areas of unproductive land over to natives, which are slower-growing than exotics such as pine and therefore generate less income from carbon credits.

“We have an opportunity to put all that money into New Zealand if we can. But otherwise we will have to assemble it from quality [schemes] offshore,” he says.

IATA chief economist Brian Pearce. Photo/Getty Images

Green globetrotting

In the longer term, the international aviation industry has a goal of halving emissions by 2050 compared with 2005 levels. By then, says Luxon, it’s hoped that developments in fuel technology, aircraft design and electric planes will be able to deliver those reductions.

So, can we look forward to a future of clean, green globetrotting? Not necessarily. Lobby groups such as the Europe’s Transport & Environment argue that the notion of “sustainable” flying is a myth. “Talk of flying green and the dawn of sustainable aviation is misleading and misplaced,” wrote the group’s aviation expert, Andrew Murphy, in an article highlighting the dubious history of international carbon credits, which have often been found to lack integrity.

“Even if offsetting can be made to work, it can only ever be a temporary solution as the Paris Agreement requires all sectors and all states to reduce their emissions, not just pay others to reduce theirs.”

Also, the global Corsia scheme deals only with CO2 emissions, not the other climate-damaging gases emitted by aircraft.

A 2015 report to the European Parliament also advised that merely stabilising aviation emissions at 2020 levels is “clearly not enough”, and that by 2050 the sector’s CO2 emissions needed to be 41% below 2005 levels to meet global climate goals. If aviation’s non-CO2 gases were also taken into account, “those targets would need to be even more stringent”.

And some say the aviation sector’s long-term ambitions for a massive scale-up of biofuels should be treated with caution. The International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation – an alliance that includes groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Transport & Environment and the Environmental Defence Fund – says the strategy overstates the environmental benefits of biofuels and understates the risk that they could trigger food insecurity and human rights violations if customary land users are squeezed out to make way for fuel crops.

Peter Kalmus of Climate Scientists Who Don’t Fly.

Down to earth

For some climate-conscious citizens, there’s only one solution to the problem of air travel and its contribution to global warming and that is to stay on the ground.

UK climate scientist Kevin Anderson depicts it as a matter of climate justice: given that there is a finite budget on how much carbon can be dumped into the atmosphere without pushing the temperature above the 2°C guardrail – let alone the more ambitious goal of a 1.5°C limit – every time someone takes a carbon-spewing flight, “someone else has to reduce their emissions to compensate”.

“Given that the wealthy in society are the principal drivers of increased aviation, it is the poorer communities that are essentially forced to pay this compensation,” says Anderson. “When we decide to fly to another essential climate-change conference, undertake field work or visit family, we are telling poorer communities to cut back on the energy they use to provide basic needs.”

Like Anderson, US scientist Peter Kalmus is part of a group called Climate Scientists Who Don’t Fly. In a recent book called Being the Change, he describes how he has reduced his personal carbon footprint from 20 tonnes a year to two, partly by deciding to stop flying to scientific conferences. He writes of the cognitive dissonance he experienced as his knowledge of climate change deepened, but he continued to live a high-carbon lifestyle with a greenhouse-gas footprint dominated by flying. One of the triggers for change was imagining his kids asking him in the future: “Dad, how could you keep flying around the world giving 20-minute presentations on your research when you knew the impact?”

As for me and my share of that gigantic carbon footprint from just one year of flying, I haven’t followed Anderson and Kalmus’s path. For now, offsets help assuage the guilt. As for avoiding frivolous flying, it helps that I’m happier to go tramping in the hills than hopping over to Sydney to go shopping. But the online carbon calculator has spoken and shattered my climate-conscious halo. From now on, I will think before I fly.

This article was first published in the November 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.