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An ambitious carbon offsetting program might make Air New Zealand the planet’s greenest airline.

It’s been a long, hot summer.

Perhaps those sweaty, sleepless nights served to harden the resolve of those on the board of Air New Zealand, when they backed the company’s decision to make a bold submission to the current Emissions Trading Scheme review a few months back. If acted upon, that submission would make the company fully accountable for its carbon emissions.

By now the board must be used to having, at first, Rob Fyfe, and now current CEO Christopher Luxon rock up to meetings with yet another, costly, environmental initiative.

He hasn’t so much as come out and said it, but it’s a safe enough bet that making Air New Zealand the world’s first carbon neutral airline is one of the first things to run through Christopher Luxon’s mind when he wakes up in the morning.

Have they all gone mad? Or does Air New Zealand have a secret, evil-genius plan? A breakthrough on an industrial-scale, carbon-neutral biofuel source, perhaps? Or is this just pure altruism, and long-term, future-proof planning?

Incredibly, it appears to be the latter.

There’s little doubt that the current rock-bottom oil prices would have eased the pain of making that decision, but in the world of aviation it’s unprecedented, and either breathtakingly courageous or foolhardy. When a single Boeing 767 can burn over 6000 litres of high octane fuel per hour, Air New Zealand will be left carrying the can for a fair chunk of COat the end of each year, and a potentially profit-destroying level of exposure.

The fact that heavy polluting aviation and shipping industries were left out of the agreement signed at the Paris Climate Change Talks last December makes Air New Zealand’s commitment even more extraordinary.

At the recent ‘Air New Zealand Sustainability Breakfast’ in Wellington, Luxon gathered journalists, politicians and business people to hear about our national carrier’s wide array of initiatives, from the radical ETS submission, to a pest-eradication partnership with the Department of Conservation, to a uniform recycling programme turning 35,000 old garments into blankets and carpet underlay. It was at this breakfast the company announced the much publicised electrification of its vehicle fleet and a partnership with Virgin Australia to investigate large-scale biofuel opportunities.

Many of the initiatives are the brain children of Luxon’s ‘Sustainability Advisory Panel’ – half a dozen eco rock-stars, headed by the super-articulate and charming Sir Jonathon Porritt, founder of Forum for the Future, and who guest-starred at the first Sustainability Breakfast in Auckland seven months ago.

Joining himself and Luxon for meetings twice a year are entrepreneur Derek Handley, eco-businessman Rob Fenwick and anthropologist Dame Anne Salmond – all Kiwis – along with Brian Pearce, the Geneva-based International Air Transport Association chief economist and environmental consultant and Carbon War Room advisor Suzanne Hunt from New York.

Porritt is awed by Air New Zealand’s commitment in an industry he says is rife with “institutionalised mediocrity.”

Porrit explains that that the journey towards the decarbonisation of life is unstoppable. “It may not move as quickly as we like sometimes but, make no mistake, it’s unstoppable. If your business has not recognised this, you are unwise.

“If an airline can do this, there’s no reason why any other business can’t.”

Despite Air New Zealand’s partnership with Virgin Australia to develop biofuels, advisory panelist Suzanne Hunt, a specialist in renewable fuels, has doubts that they will play a part in aviation – at least in the foreseeable future.

“Renewable [aviation] fuels are a fairly new phenomenon and of course there’s no margin for error in aviation fuels. It is inherently difficult to be able to keep the costs of renewable fuels down.”
The price of conventional fuels may also severely hinder a biofuel industry without long-term government support, says Hunt.

“I’ve recently completely changed my thinking about this. It’s possible that oil prices are going to stay low for a long time, and may never again reach the levels they once did. Of course that changes the equation for renewable fuels. Electric vehicles are also forecast to take a two million barrel per day chunk out of oil in just the next seven years. That might be enough to cause an oil [glut] crisis. Low price oil might just last a long, long time.”

In the meantime, our national carrier has a secretive plan for improving the quality of its offset program, perhaps even with a view toward complete carbon neutrality.

Says Kelly Kilgour, Air New Zealand communications consultant: “We want to approach carbon offsetting with an investment mindset to improve the quality of our carbon offsetting practices and are currently working with partners to develop new initiatives in this space.”

Little more can be drawn from Air New Zealand sustainability manager James Gibson. “We will have more to say about this in the coming months.” Gibson does, however, expand on the definition of what a high quality offset looks like, at least in the current business model, if not the future’s.

“[High quality offsets] ensure that any credits are environmentally positive across a range of areas, not just in carbon sequestration. For example, do they also deliver complementary benefits such as biodiversity gains, waterways improvement and prevention of topsoil erosion, etc?”

Gibson says that Air New Zealand hopes that agreement can be reached on a global, market-based measure for the price of carbon at the International Civil Aviation Organisation assembly to be held this September. “Until that is resolved it’s difficult for any airline to commit substantially beyond the industry targets,” he explains.

Gibson says it’s possible for Air New Zealand to become carbon neutral, but it comes back to the question of the quality of credits, and therefore price. “Air New Zealand could purchase cheap international credits but they are of questionable quality and as such the carbon neutral claim would be questionable.

However within New Zealand, through its submission to the New Zealand ETS review, Air New Zealand supported a move to a 100 percent obligation for offsetting domestic emissions, so if that comes in Air New Zealand will essentially be carbon neutral within its domestic operations.”

In theory, an airline should be among the last companies on the planet to reach carbon neutrality, or even bother trying – at least for the sake or their shareholders. But New Zealand’s favourite company – the one that more people would like to work for than any other – appears to be cut from different cloth.

James Russell

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