26 May 2023

Current efforts to reduce NZ's excessive aviation emissions not enough, researchers say

8:42 am on 26 May 2023
Airplane in the sky at sunrise

New Zealand currently has the sixth-highest rate of aviation-derived greenhouse gases emissions per capita. Photo: 123RF

New Zealanders are some of the worst emitters in the world when it comes to aviation and none of the current efforts to fix that will be good enough, scientists say.

A new paper, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand on Friday, says our increasing use of air travel is "incompatible with the Paris Agreement on climate change", with growing uptake of air travel far outpacing improvements to fuel efficiency and other technological innovations.

"Prior to Covid, the global aviation industry was growing rapidly," said co-authors Paul Callister of the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, and Robert McLachlan of Massey University's School of Mathematical and Computational Sciences.

New Zealand currently has the sixth-highest rate of aviation-derived greenhouse gases emissions per capita, the paper states, after growing 116 percent in between 1990 and 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic and resultant border closure.

"Growth has now resumed and is predicted to continue for at least the next three decades," the paper stated.

Figures showed 12 percent of New Zealand's carbon emissions were from aviation, up from 8 percent in 1990. The world average was just 2.8 percent.

And it was not just because of the country's remote location in the world and big tourism industry - despite its small size, Aotearoa ranks fourth-worst in the world for domestic aviation emissions, creating more per capita than Canada, a much larger country.

Callister told Morning Report New Zealand had very little options domestically and no alternatives to air travel to reach the rest of the world.

"We have a lot of complications. We have a lot of dispersed families, migration has been very high to NZ, so people want to remain connected."

This led to having a "gnarly problem" and while electric planes would be seen in the future, it would not be for some time and even then, the contribution would be small, he said.

Callister said it was going to be a "real challenge" and officials needed to have a realistic discussion and plan that showed how New Zealand could reduce emissions.

"So that's what we've got to get on with."

While "government, intergovernmental, non-governmental, academic and industry sources have proposed technological innovations to address aviation emissions", such as "sustainable aviation fuels, electric and hydrogen powered aircraft, and increases in efficiency", the pair's review showed "none of them will lead to a significant reduction in emissions in the short- to medium-term".

In addition, growing incomes meant more people were turning to air travel, which was also getting cheaper over time, they said.

A national action was needed to get people to avoid unnecessary travel, shift to lower-emissions travel modes where possible and improve the efficiency of unavoidable air travel, they said.

"Ensuring that aviation emissions remain permanently well below 2019 levels requires urgent action. Bold action now would make the longer-term task significantly easier."

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