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Aviation: New Zealand’s emission elephant in the room

We must begin now to decarbonise New Zealand’s aviation industry.

Why? Because air transport contributes to 4.9% of human-caused climate change. 

In Europe plans are being developed with an aim of decarbonising aviation, alongside ongoing investment in alternative low carbon land-based transport, primarily electric rapid rail including bringing back night trains. 

New Zealand has yet to fully acknowledge the aviation and shipping challenges we face – or even grasp the opportunities that could come from such transformation. We have no long distance rapid rail vision either. 

An important step for New Zealand would be making sure emission reduction goals for both domestic and international aviation are included in our carbon targets. As a majority shareholder in Air New Zealand, the government has both a direct and indirect interest in solving this problem for an airline readily promoted as sustainable. 

However, due to network expansion in recent years its emissions have been increasing while in May this year the company announced it will buy eight Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner long distance aircraft. Phased in from 2022, these will overlap the 777ER 200 aircraft until 2025, and could be flying for the next two decades. 

A claim was made that the airline would save 190,000 tons of carbon emissions per year and become more sustainable, yet the airline is still expanding and extending its network to Taipei, New York, and Chicago. 

The result will be an increase in carbon emissions not a decrease. 

More significantly there is no mention of how fossil fuels will be amended or replaced with either biofuel or synthetic fuel. Despite some early experiments with biofuel, Air New Zealand’s sustainability strategy relies heavily on efficiency gains and on promoting an ineffective, voluntary, carbon-offset scheme. 

Based on their own information sent out to Frequent Flyer members in early 2019, under 2% of their frequent flyers offset their flights through the Air New Zealand offset scheme (similar to the level seen throughout the world). 

Courageous strategies needed 

Is it realistic to think that in the short term humans can keep flying at current and potentially expanding levels and concurrently decarbonise the industry? In the short term, the answer has to be no. A reduction in actual flying,particularly internationally to and from New Zealand is the only practical option to meet near-term emission reduction targets. However, this has significant implications for the tourism industry and for New Zealanders wishing to travel overseas.

But what of the longer term?

New Zealand will rely on the larger nations to develop renewable energy capability to power planes and therefore we need to expand our sources for renewable electricity. Studies from Transpower and others show the challenge to electrify land-based transport is daunting, so any attempt to electrify domestic air transport adds even more complexity as well as substantive R&D expenditure. 

Theoretically, we can replace much of our fossil based, liquid fuels with low carbon or non-fossil based alternatives. But right now all these alternatives are more expensive than fossil fuels and most involve significant renewable electricity generation and storage. 

If the cost of flying was based on a more realistic price of $100/tonne CO2e as suggested by the Productivity Commission, the cost of a return trip to London would increase by $1237, or about 50% of the current fare. This is on the basis of the climate effect of all greenhouse gas emissions and the greater effect these gases have when they are emitted at high altitude.

It is not simply the price of carbon that matters most.

We need to make difficult choices about land use and power generation. For example, should we consider nuclear energy as a viable option for dramatically increasing electricity output in order to manufacture low carbon aviation fuel? Hard to imagine our ‘nuclear free moment’ for climate change actually means we embrace nuclear energy. 

With the global race to decarbonise on, these choices may need to be made quickly.

The challenge

Eating less meat, catching the bus or driving an electric car can all help reduce both our personal and national carbon footprint, but for New Zealanders a single economy class return trip to Europe dramatically elevates one person’s carbon footprint by an estimated 6 tonnes according to one carbon calculator and as much as 8 tonnes of CO2 by another. 

Yet the government’s new Tourism Strategy released only a few days after the introduction of the Zero Carbon Bill talks about sustainability, but it does not directly address the contribution the aviation industry makes to global and local emissions. 

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the World Meteorological Organisation, air transport contributes to 4.9% of human-caused climate change. Another challenging metric is the IATA forecast that the number of people travelling by air will double to 8.2 billion a year by 2037, with Asia and the Pacific leading the way. The forecast for jet fuel is a staggering 9 million barrels a day by 2040.

In New Zealand, domestic aviation, although important, is not the key contributor to the growth in aviation emissions. According to the NZ Productivity Commission’s Low-Emissions Economy report , domestic aviation contributes about 6% of all national transport emissions, but remained relatively unchanged between 1990 and 2016 as the shift to larger and more fuel-efficient aircraft offset the increase in domestic air travel.

It is international aviation that accounts for the massive growth in aviation emissions. Yet when countries, including New Zealand, consider their emission targets, emissions from international aviation have generally not been counted. The Productivity Commission notes: “International aviation and shipping emissions are not covered under the Paris Agreement. The main reason for this is that attributing these emissions to a specific country is more difficult than for other emissions sources. For instance, if a plane flies from Auckland to London with a stopover in Singapore for refuelling, it is not obvious how the emissions liability from these trips should be allocated.” 

The Commission further notes that countries are required to report separately their international transport emissions based on fuel supplied. The NZ data, collated by the Ministry for the Environment, shows that emissions rose 362,000 tonnes, or 11% in just one year between 2016 and 2017. MfE calculates these emissions have increased by 178% since 1990. 

Not surprising. Inbound tourism has been rising steadily and is forecast to keep growing. For instance, a recent Dominion Post article reports a 75% increase in visitors from China between 2015 and 2018, with Air New Zealand quoted as suggesting that there are “currently 48 million people in China actively considering a trip to New Zealand”.

Both our geography and demography mean that international aviation represents a huge contributor to the country’s emissions profile. We are separated by vast distances from all other major population centres. We are a nation of migrants and travellers, with many New Zealanders having family members living abroad.

The international community 

In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization announced that it will implement a Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme (CORSIA) that aims to prevent any growth in international aviation emissions above 2020 levels. Any growth in emissions must be offset by certified emission reduction units. Sixty-six parties, including New Zealand, have volunteered to participate in the initial phase between 2021 and 2026. However, only those routes where both affected parties participate in the scheme are covered.

This scheme relies on offsets rather than working to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Throughout most of the world, aviation and shipping stand out as industries that are yet to develop realistic plans for emissions reduction.

New Zealand is no exception to this. In various reports, very little is said about how aviation can decarbonise. This stands in stark contrast to the responsibility and pressure placed on many other industries, such as farming, to reduce their emissions.

The only suggestion relating to aviation emissions proposed by the Productivity Commission is to increase the cost of flying, primarily through a substantial increase in the price of carbon. The Commission cited estimates (Concept Consulting 2017) that an emissions’ price of $100 per tonne of CO2e (currently around $22) could reduce domestic air travel demand by up to 12%. 

There is not currently the political will to dramatically lift the price of carbon in New Zealand. While aviation fuel for domestic flying could be taxed, thus raising the cost of flying, a 1944 international agreement prevents taxes being placed on fuel used for international travel. And while efficiency gains are being made, they are swamped by the growth in air travel. 

Voluntary carbon offsets are also an option, endorsed by the Green Party, and planting carbon sinks are a necessary part of our overall strategy to bring down greenhouse gas levels. But hardly anyone offsets voluntarily, with fewer than 2% of Air NZ flights being offset. Ultimately, offsets do not reduce the use of fossil fuels and may sometimes even incentivise people to keep flying more or feel better about their emissions footprint.

What are the alternatives? 

One is to make the personal decision to fly less, an option promoted by a New Zealand based Fly-less Kiwis Facebook group. Youth climate-change advocate Greta Thunberg also promotes this option as do some high-profile, climate scientists including Kevin Anderson.

If voluntary action does not result in a reduction in air travel, financial disincentives to flying could be implemented. For example, caps on the number of international tourist arrivals and/or a more significant entry fee to the country could be introduced; the latter aimed at reducing New Zealand’s attraction to low budget tourists. Or, as in Scotland, a departure tax could be charged, as previously the case here. 

Another option with an unimaginable range of considerations could be to make it more difficult to build new or expand existing airports. In France a group of left-wing French parliamentarians want to ban a large part of their domestic flights. A similar idea was promoted by Green politicians in Switzerland in 2018 while in the UK’s Green Party floated the idea of a frequent flyer tax.

But most of these possibilities are politically unattractive.

Even if the amount of air travel was reduced through any of the above methods, a significant amount of ‘residual flying’ will still occur. Essential services will remain, such as air ambulances and air-based search and rescue missions. Then there are ‘love miles’, such as flying to visit grandchildren or sick relatives who live overseas.

Many academics and businesspeople claim their flying is essential to maintain national and international connections. Numerous NZ businesses or for that matter our primary industry exports could not have grown without international air travel. 

At the other end of the spectrum, environmental advocates argue that given the extent of the climate crisis facing us, the damage caused by New Zealanders heading off for a cycling holiday in Europe is no longer justified. And what about large sporting events? It is estimated an extra 800 flights were scheduled to transport British fans to the Champion League final in Madrid this year. Dare we mention the Rugby World Cup in Japan?

Alternative aviation fuels

Any alternative fuel options would need to provide robust and highly sustainable performance across a range of criteria, including: safety, pollutants, high-altitude climate impacts, water demand, land requirements, and renewable energy production.

There appear to be two theoretical options to maintain air travel while reducing greenhouse emissions. The first is using battery electric planes powered from renewable sources. The second is creating low carbon synthetic liquid fuels.

In the medium term, some short commercial flights are likely to be made by new designs of electric planes. However, one of the main challenges with electric planes is the energy density of their batteries and weight which, unlike liquid fuels, do not get lighter as the flight progresses. 

At the 2019 Paris airshow Israeli startup Eviation Aircraft was reported as taking orders for a US$4 million electric plane. The aircraft is rated to fly 1,046 km at around 805 km/h with three electric motors on the tail and one on each wingtip. The prototype carries a 900 kWh lithium-ion battery, about nine times bigger than Tesla’s largest automotive battery. However, the plane carries just nine passengers.

In 2017 Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and Siemens announced they would collaborate on a hybrid-electric technology demonstrator expected then to fly in 2020 called the E-Fan X.

Using batteries to power flying would require significant increases in production of electricity from renewable sources.

Until there is some ground-breaking technological breakthrough in the foreseeable future, international flights in and out of NZ will continue to use liquid fuels, allowing the existing stock of aircraft to keep flying through 2050. To keep focus on emission reduction targets airlines will need to blend lower carbon synthetic fuels with fossil jet fuel.

The Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, (CAFI) was formed in 2006 in response to three concerns regarding aviation fuels: supply security, affordability and price stability, and environmental impacts. 

Membership includes few airlines outside the US, notably Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa. Air New Zealand is not listed as a member. However Air New Zealand is a member of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG) who have signed a sustainability pledge, stating that a key driver to a carbon neutral aviation industry is advancing and adopting sustainable biofuels. However judging by recent updates progress has been slow.

Members of SAFUG subscribe to fuels that minimally impact biodiversity; meet a land, water, and energy use sustainability standard; do not compete with food crops; provide a positive socio-economic impact; and do not require any special fuel handling equipment, distribution systems, or changes to engine design.

The EU and Nordic countries are mandating biofuel content for transport fuels. Finland approved a law last year that sets a gradually increasing proportion to 30% biofuel as a target for 2030. The Norwegian government announced last October that airlines operating in Norwegian airspace will have to use 0.5% biofuels in their fuel by 2020. 

If biofuel is a viable solution what mandates and infrastructure will be necessary?

Meeting a modest 2% of demand for aviation fuel would require at least a US$10 billion investment in new refinery capacity. Alt Energy, now World Energy, has just completed a refinery conversion to produce 600 million litres of jet biofuel per annum.

Only five airports have regular biofuel distribution today – Bergen, Brisbane, Los Angeles, Oslo and Stockholm. The 15 million litres produced in 2018 comprised less than 0.1% of total aviation fuel consumption. 

One limitation of biofuel in aviation would be the amount of land area required for cropping. Using solar energy to convert organic matter to biomass is very inefficient. For example, to supply our domestic jet fuel requirements from a suitable energy crop such as Jatropha or Camelina, our calculation suggests the crops would utilise up to 70% of New Zealand’s arable land. A smaller contribution to biofuel production through using waste fats or algae-based production may be possible and this is being explored in New Zealand by the NXT Fuels group.

It’s possible most early production of biofuel in New Zealand will go to decarbonising road-based transport. A simple process (esterification) can convert waste vegetable oil and tallow into a product suitable for blending into standard diesel for heavy transport.

This is the route taken by Z Energy which is producing 20 million litres a year at its Wiri plant from 10% of the total New Zealand tallow production. The B5 blend will make a modest contribution to CO2 reduction when used by large commercial transport fleets such as Fonterra, Fulton Hogan, Downer, South Fuels as well as Air New Zealand land transport. 

However, vegetable oils and fats-based sources must be processed beyond simple esterification to meet technical standards and be a blend option for jet fuel.

Hydrogen certainly has its supporters as a transport fuel and in the longer term should play a role in powering land-based transport, but will still require major investment in new infrastructure. Liquid hydrogen may be compressed and cooled to below -240°C to liquefy, but even in this form the volume required is 4 times greater than traditional Jet Fuel to store the same energy. 

Building an airframe to safely accommodate long distance flight and 200 to 300 passengers currently seems impractical although not impossible.

Emerging technologies 

LanzaTech, a New Zealand company now established in the US, uses a bacteria as an intermediate agent which converts waste carbon monoxide from steel mill exit gases to ethanol. This ethanol can then be converted to jet fuel. A more direct route to liquid fuels of all types would be through the hydrogen reduction of carbon dioxide to a mixed carbon monoxide/hydrogen gas stream which may then be converted to liquid fuels. The CO2 may be extracted from air or more economically from industrial exit gases. A prime source would be the CO2 extracted from Kapuni natural gas. 

Quantafuel, a start-up, has devised a process of converting unrecyclable plastic waste such as blended composites, and thermoset plastics, which cannot be reformed and generally go to landfill. The process can produce a range of hydrocarbons suitable for jet fuel and low sulphur diesel. The technology has potential to extend to wood and municipal waste. The first commercial plant is based in Denmark, expected to be in production this year. The process is low carbon and cost competitive when compared with refinery production of jet fuel, with an estimated fuel resource in excess of 200Mt of waste plastic and increasing.

Electric Power to Liquid fuels (PtL) is another alternative to producing sustainable fuels. Provided there is available a low cost supply of low carbon electrical energy, this is a more scalable alternative. Carbon dioxide is extracted from the air and reduced in a power cell by steam electrolysis to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

This gas mixture is transformed at high pressure and temperature in the presence of a catalyst to liquid fuels. 

Nordic Blue in partnership with Sunfire and Climeworks AG have begun the engineering of a PtL facility that is expected to be operational in 2020. At a projected price of 2 euro/L this represents an approximate 4 times premium to the current jet fuel price of USD 0.5/L. Economy of scale will reduce this cost. To prove the concept Norwegian and Scandinavian countries will support the project by insisting on the increased use of sustainable fuels over their airspace.

At the end of May 2019 in Rotterdam the Hague Airport and a European consortium signed a cooperation agreement for a study aimed at developing a demonstration plant that produces renewable jet fuel from air. This plant aims to be the first worldwide to offer renewable jet fuel from air to the market. 

In 2017 New Zealand imported 111 kilo tonnes and produced 313 kilo tonnes of jet fuel. To make this amount of jet fuel using the Nordic Blue technology would require 9000 GWhr of power or about 20% of our current annual electricity production. 

New Zealand is dependent on fossil fuels for 60% of our energy requirements and to forego coal, natural gas and oil is a significant challenge. 

Energy harvested from low energy intensity sources such as biofuels, solar energy and wind power is not yet adequate for decarbonising the land-based economy, let alone also keeping New Zealanders and our increasing number of visitors flying to and from our shores. If we wish to keep flying, reduce our carbon footprint and secure a viable low carbon energy future, we need to consider other ways we can generate electricity to create liquid fuels. 

What about nuclear? Now that’s the other big elephant in the room.

Clearly the ‘Flygskam’, i.e. flight shaming movement is being heard around the globe. 

Do I think people will stop flying as a result? No, not necessarily, but I do think that the additional focus will have an impact on traveller behaviour in the short to medium term.

Flights into Hawke’s Bay are fundamental for supporting growth, thriving communities, small to large businesses and the tourism industry. Out of every passenger flying into our region there is an economic impact of approximately $395 per person. That’s nearly $300 million into the local economy. 

Low carbon doesn’t need to mean higher fares but the aviation industry has a critical role to play in shaping its destiny as well as how their customer sees their contribution to low carbon futures.

It is encouraging to see EasyJet announce that it will be the world’s first major airline to operate net-zero carbon flights across its entire network, after announcing it would offset all jet fuel emissions during November 2019. The British budget airline said that it would start offsetting all flights which it said would cost about £25m in the next financial year through schemes to plant trees or avoid the release of additional carbon dioxide.

My view is that Air New Zealand should follow this lead and make the offsetting of all flying mandatory for travellers. Or better still just swallow it up, taking EasyJet’s lead and offsetting all jet fuel emissions.

That said, I don’t believe that carbon offsetting is ultimately the long term answer. 

The critical issue will be how airlines can influence suppliers to make progress on alternate fuels (i.e. biofuels), engine technology, aerodynamics and electric/hybrid aircraft. There is no one silver bullet rather a collection of advances that together could make a significant difference.

Do Air New Zealand have enough global clout to lead in this space? If not is there an opportunity for them to work with other airline partners such as Qantas to accelerate change? Qantas recently announced that it will slash its net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, becoming only the second airline group in the world after British Airways to make the commitment predominantly through fuel efficiency and carbon offset schemes.

Of the 4.9% that air transport contributes to climate-affecting emissions, airport infrastructure contributes less than 5% of this. That said, airports clearly need to be part of the solution, for example reducing ground fuel burn related directly to inefficient ground operations and infrastructure. Airways, our air services provider, are also essential in enabling the efficient use of New Zealand’s air space through Performance Based Navigation and new technologies allowing a reduction in fuel usage.

Hawke’s Bay Airport management have committed to an ambitious goal of becoming the most sustainable New Zealand airport, having already signed up to the Airports Council International’s independent (ACI) Airport Carbon Accreditation scheme aiming to be Carbon Zero within the next three years. In conjunction with this we are also looking at the feasibility of a significant renewable energy project on airport land.

New Zealand’s sector lengths are ideally suited for trialling the first Major City to Regional Airport electric hybrid aircraft routes. Airbus have signalled that they could potentially build an emission-free, 100-seat regional aircraft by the early 2030s. Hawke’s Bay Airport is open for business!

Of course it all starts with us and we can make the decision to fly less, offset our carbon, train ride rather than fly, but will we do the same when it comes to the significant carbon footprint that our data appetite uses on a daily basis? The energy consumption of data centres is set to account for 3.2% of the total worldwide carbon emissions by 2025 and they could consume no less than a fifth of global electricity.

Are we prepared to trade experiencing the real world for a virtual one? 

I expect we’ll continue to see growth in flying year on year but as greater awareness builds on the impacts of climate change, major airlines will push much harder for suppliers to bring forward solutions that enable significant reductions in aviation carbon emissions. 

Unison is pleased to sponsor robust examination of energy issues in Hawke’s Bay. This reporting is prepared by BayBuzz. Any editorial views expressed are those of the BayBuzz team and do not reflect the views of Unison.

Paul Callister & Wallace Rae01 February 2020

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