Blues from an airplane

Two Otago University physicists, Inga Smith and Craig Rodger, have calculated the CO2 equivalent emissions generated by international tourist visits to NZ, and find that in 2005 the return flights accounted for almost 8 million tonnes of CO2e – about the same as emissions by the country’s entire power sector – around 10 percent of total NZ emissions. They then calculated what it would take to offset those emissions in NZ, and found that most approaches were either not feasible or too expensive. Not suprisingly, this has got quite a few people in a tizzy (Herald & Herald, NBR, Stuff, NZ News UK), because if international travellers begin to worry about their carbon footprints, then 20 percent of our export earnings are at risk.

This is not news. I drew attention to this vulnerability in Hot Topic. Air New Zealand has been very keen to establish its green credentials by working with Boeing on biofuels for avation, and looking at offset schemes in the conservation estate with DOC. In fact the whole tourism sector has seen this coming for some time. What’s interesting is the numbers, and I won’t be commenting on those until I’ve had a chance to see the paper. There are a lot of open questions, too, about how to approach offsetting our tourism business. The authors appear to assume that this should all be done in NZ, and therefore make Helen Clark’s “carbon neutral country” ambition harder to achieve – in fact the NBR (and David Farrar) seem keen to spin this as a government policy problem. The NBR’s intro (above an otherwise fine story) is particularly egregious:

New Zealand’s adoption of a carbon neutrality policy, and the world’s toughest emission reduction targets, will have a disastrous effect on its biggest foreign exchange earner, tourism, and there are no solutions in sight, university experts say.

Now I don’t think that’s what Smith & Rodger were saying at all, but I’ll wait until I see the paper…

There are lots of things to consider. First, the global aviation industry is working on its own emissions regulation framework in part to try and forestall the sort of mandatory scheme threatened by Europe, and as a PR exercise to keep valuable long distance travellers flying. So airlines are likely to be looking at an international offset scheme. Within that, there will have to be some rules about where the emissions generated by travelling are accounted for. All incoming flights in the destination nation, perhaps? Not good news for NZ because of the length of our flights, but there’s nothing to say that the offsets have to be created in that country. Officials looking at ways of achieving Helen Clark’s carbon neutral ambition are already considering that it might be achieved by buying reductions in other countries. And if that’s the cheapest way to do it, why not?

But the fact remains that tourism in NZ is exquisitely vulnerable to consumer perceptions in our prime markets. If long distance flights become uncool, business here will suffer. Like the food miles issue, this is not something we can dodge – it has to be confronted head on. It’s not a problem of the government’s making, but it is one this government (and the next one) will have to help with.

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