Former Air NZ Sustainability Panel chair proposes frequent flyer penalty levy

You remember flygskam  – or flight shame – a word that briefly competed with hygge as the most popular Scandinavian word in the English language.


Swedish opera singer Malena Ernman – better known as Greta’s mum – turned down a chance to perform in Aotearoa in 2018 out of flygskam and the word was briefly everywhere.


Air travel was accepted to be a significant contributor to global heating and the only viable solution was for people to fly less.


But the idea of guiltless flight – be it SAF, battery power or hydrogen – has well and truly eclipsed the idea that we need to fly less.


Environmentalist Sir Jonathan Porritt thinks that’s an existential problem.


Air New Zealand’s Sustainability Panel was Porritt’s idea.


A decade or so ago, the son of former New Zealand governor general Arthur Porritt, wrote a paper proposing Air New Zealand establish a panel of environmental experts to chart the airline’s path to sustainability which then CEO Christopher Luxon took on board appointing Porritt as chair – a position he held till last July.


Future of aviation under threat


Porritt, a former co-leader of the UK Green Party and director of Friends of the Earth and sustainability advisor to governments and corporations, says either airlines will be sustainable by 2050 or we won’t have airlines at all. 


In a blog post written on the plane flying from the UK to New Zealand for his final panel meeting he noted that he was writing on the hottest day ever recorded – July 6 2023 – which happened to also to be the day there were more flights in one 24 hour than ever before, and his birthday.

Catching up with him by Zoom seven month’s later it’s plain he wasn’t – and isn’t – in a celebratory mood.


“I don’t think people understand the nature of the change that we’re already now seeing the outline of but it won’t leave room for some sectors to operate on an unsustainable basis and other sectors to operate on a genuinely sustainable basis. 


“I mean the speed of change in the climate is so great now that eventually, and I hopefully it’ll be in the next two three years, governments will realise they have to move much faster. It’s not a choice,” he says.


“Some people -including some people in this new government – talk as if sustainability was a choice, I honestly don’t know what’s going on in their muddled brains.”

Sustainability an imperative


“Sustainability is an imperative for humankind. That makes it an imperative for every country, which makes it an imperative for every company and individual inside that country – so people need to get their heads together.”


Aviation, he says, is sometimes described as the hardest to abate sector and that’s probably right.


And, he says, there’s nothing in the pipeline – in terms of new technology – that will see emissions go down substantially before at least 2040.


“Unfortunately at the moment the aviation industry globally is run by appallingly poor quality leadership which means that we are still seeing massive growth in orders for new planes, not replacement planes that are coming towards the end of their operating life, but orders for new planes to accommodate very significant increases in demand for aviation services.”


There are exceptions to that poor leadership and he includes Air New Zealand in what he calls a coalition of the willing made up of no more than ten airlines.


But even with the best will in the world, airlines operating at current levels – let alone the projected growth in flying – isn’t sustainable.


He says if the 80 t0 90% reductions in aviation emissions required for the world to avoid catastrophic climate change can’t be achieved by new technology – which he dismisses as a pipe dream – then some sort of demand management will be needed to be introduced.


“It won’t happen for at least another decade. Politicians are just too scared of the backlash that would come from that.”


Porritt says that price rather than rationing is the most likely response to the need to dramatically cut the amount of flying people are doing.


Aviation will have to pay for its emissions


“Aviation will not be exempt in the long run from a global cost of carbon. It can’t be. You can’t set one sector aside and say, ‘no it’s too special and people love it too much’.”


And one of the first added costs is likely to be an additional charge incurred by frequent flyers.


Porritt says the Air New Zealand Sustainability Panel spoke about the idea endlessly but it’s the place where airlines are the most reluctant to go. 


“You can’t expect one airline to go after a strategy that is deliberately about reducing, income-reducing activity, reducing opportunities to bring people to and get people out of New Zealand, when all its competitors aren’t doing the same.”


So, he says, international agreements and government mandates are required.


And the government should do more to cut aviation emissions including curbing the surging use of private jets with high taxes, and taking up the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s proposal for a departure tax that could be used to make tourism far more sustainable.


He says hydrogen powered planes are only a solution to the extent that countries can manufacture green hydrogen – something New Zealand is better placed than most countries to do.


“If this government wanted to be serious about trying to develop any serious green credentials for itself, which seems extremely improbable at the moment, then it would be working its socks off to get the green hydrogen supply chain properly established with the proper certification and proper regulation all the way through so that eventually volumes of green hydrogen can start to serve different sectors including aviation.”


Porritt says New Zealanders are in a very different position from Europeans who have viable alternatives for long distance travel but everyone needs to start treating flying as a privilege not a right.


“Nobody should be flying because they’re just think it’s an easy thing for them to do without repercussions and consequences. There are always consequences every time you get on a plane. There are consequences in terms of the additional burden that you’re putting on the atmosphere. So I’m not one of those who call for an end to flying, but I am one of those who call for the need for responsible flying, people being very thoughtful, mindful about when they fly, where they fly how they fly and how they offset those emissions that they cause when they fly.”


In that farewell blogpost, Porritt acknowledged that in the eyes of some green campaigners he was “hopelessly compromised” by his involvement with Air New Zealand


“[A]ny fool can tell, the aviation industry is also out of control. More than a thousand new aircraft have been ordered over the last few months – in India, China, the Middle East (with Saudi Arabia vying to supplant Dubai as the biggest transit hub in the world), and many other countries.


“I still believe (though with increasingly less conviction, I have to admit) that people will still be able to benefit from the privilege of flying (occasionally and expensively) in a genuinely sustainable future. Technology will (eventually) make that possible – but unfortunately not until 2040 at the earliest,” he wrote.


 And, he says, Air New Zealand has made some progress towards becoming “one of the world’s least unsustainable airlines.”

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