The Elephant In The Sky

Tourism Industry experts love trotting out forecasts. Forecasts of visitor arrivals. Forecasts of how much they are going to spend. Forecasts of the, always positive, impacts all these people will have on New Zealand. More employment. Economic growth in the regions and so on.

And yet the elephant in the sky is seldom mentioned.

New Zealand is a long way away from, almost, everywhere. What this means is that to get here, our visitors overwhelmingly need to take an international flight. They need to board one of the 23,000 (some estimates say over 30,000) passenger aircraft presently in service.

To write this post, I have been reading projections on the growth in aircraft numbers, on passenger numbers and importantly on Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.

Projections from Boeing and Airbus, the world’s largest manufacturers of these types of aircraft, project that over 20,000 new aircraft will be required over the next 20 years and that the world’s total passenger fleet numbers will grow to at least 40,000 aircraft. As a comparison, in the early 1970s, there was a total of some 1700 passenger aircraft in service.

Passenger numbers will surge from a little over 4 billion per year at present to almost 8 billion per year by 2036 and with the average person flying further.

A point to bear in mind is that passenger numbers just ten years ago were only 2.5 billion per year.

There is no doubt over the last couple of decades passenger aircraft have become both more efficient in fuel use and have decreased GHG emissions per km travelled. However, the growth in passenger numbers and the frequency of flights has more than made up for any savings from these efficiencies. The result of this has been massive increases both in fuel use and GHG emissions. For instance, European GHG emissions from aviation rose 87% from 1990 to 2006.

Green House Gas Emissions

Presently, GHG emissions from the aviation industry are 2% of total global emissions from all sources. However, because there are few alternatives to fossil fuel, even including the largely discredited biofuel options, the share of worldwide GHG emissions from aviation is due to surge.

Just how large this surge in the share of worldwide emissions will be will depend in part on how much change other industries can make in cutting their emissions. The projections I have read for aviation emissions share of total emissions are a low of 5% by 2050 to a medium range of 15% to a high figure of over half all emissions.

No Real Agreements

It is worth noting that GHG emissions agreements for the aviation industry are not presently enforced, and even when they do come into effect, a base figure of 2020 emissions will be used. Also, 80% of emissions will be able to be offset (going to have to be a lot of trees planted) rather than big reductions made in fossil fuel use. There is a great deal of disagreement amongst different countries, even on these modest goals.

For the Tourism industry in New Zealand, I believe these figures are the Elephant in the Sky. We ignore them at our peril. In some informed sectors of the general public, there is already a backlash against long haul air travel and this will grow. As an example of this, are some Scandinavian travel agencies that specialise in long haul travel now receiving hate mail because they are seen to be supporting a destructive industry. In recent months rail travel has surged in Sweden as travellers take what they view as a more environmentally friendly mode of transportation.

The Big Question

Can I, as a tourism operator, honestly look at myself in the mirror and ask this question.

The question is, “Is my support of the tourism industry, and in particular the international travel aviation industry, going to lead to a degraded world for my grandchildren and those who follow.” And on a personal business note, what will be the options for River Valley if we were to choose not to support those parts of our industry that are reliant on international air travel (which presently we most definitely are)?

For our country and national tourism industry, we need to be asking the same sort of questions. There is an elephant in the sky, and there could be quite a crash when it lands.


Brian Megaw

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