The Cabinet has allocated $ 390 million to support more than 8,800 international flights, without obtaining an assessment of the extent to which the policy would warm the climate.
Transport Minister Michael Wood’s rationale for not receiving a full climate pollution tally – normally required for all potentially high-emission Cabinet proposals – was that the impact of aviation had already been reduced by the pandemic .
However, a researcher says there is nothing in the government’s package to prevent long-haul aviation pollution from returning to its old levels.
Many government-subsidized planes carried very few passengers, although airlines were able to take on more cargo, including medicines and export goods.
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The global problem of ghost flights
The pandemic has seen “ghost flights” fly empty or near empty to long-haul destinations, and airlines taking in more cargo in an attempt to recoup their income.
Governments of many countries spending billions to save airlines, activists and government advisers around the world see the bailout as an opportunity to clean up one of the world’s fastest growing sources of greenhouse gases – move faster towards a world where people travel more selectively on long-haul routes and goods travel in more climate-friendly modes.
Wood announced on Friday that the government was deploying an additional $ 195 million on top of the $ 170 million already budgeted for the Maintaining International Air Connectivity (MIAC) program, an aviation support program to enable planes to fly. fly more regularly to and from New Zealand.
The MIAC program reportedly ended this month, but the additional funding extended grants until March 31. An additional $ 25 million has been allocated to maintain connections with countries New Zealand travels with without quarantine.
The announcement said government support had already enabled 8,800 flights, carrying $ 13.5 billion in cargo.
New Zealand would have struggled to maintain regular air services without the money, Wood said – adding that nearly half of people who passed through MIQ facilities returned to New Zealand on flights supported by the government.
As of the end of 2019, all Cabinet decisions that could significantly increase emissions must undergo a Policy Climate Implications Assessment (CIPA), like any Cabinet decision to reduce emissions.
While a CIPA showing a significant climate impact will not necessarily prevent ministers from moving forward, the intent of the selection is to put the estimated climate consequences – good or bad – of Cabinet actions directly in front of them. ministers, showing them the approximate CO2 count. New Zealand is struggling to overcome decades of rising emissions.
“Ensuring ministers are aware of the implications a decision may have on New Zealand’s future greenhouse gas emissions will be essential to ensure that we all play our part in delivering on the commitments we have. taken, “Climate Change Minister James Shaw said when he announced the CIPA Rules.
At first glance, the MIAC proposal appears to have triggered the need for a comprehensive climate assessment.
A Cabinet circular says that a CIPA disclosure is required for proposals likely to create at least 0.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (or equivalent) in the first ten years – a threshold that an aviation climate impact expert said would likely have been crossed in this case.
When asked why a CIPA had not been made, Woods responded with an emailed statement that Covid-19 had reduced the number of weekly flights by three-quarters from pre-pandemic levels. , that air freight was transported more efficiently now than before. -Covid (because with fewer passengers, airlines can carry the same amount of product on fewer flights), and over the past 18 months, airlines have largely retired their older, less efficient planes .
When Thing suggested to a spokesperson for Wood that the intention of a CIPA was to compare the climate impact of a policy with the actual situation if the policy is not adopted (not to compare the impact of a policy policy with the pre-pandemic situation), the spokesperson reiterated that a CIPA was not required as aviation emissions were down from pre-pandemic conditions.
“Nothing to stop the jump in emissions”
Professor Robert McLachlan, mathematician at Massey University who writes regularly on climate and aeronautical issues, felt that the packaging probably appeared to have met the criteria for a CIPA.
“International air freight is a major emitter with 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 per year, so it looks like it would meet CIPA criteria (0.5 million tonnes over 10 years),” he said. declared.
“Air freight generates more than 100 times the emissions of ocean freight per tonne-km. At present, this is justified by high value-added exports, but in the longer term, the industry must reduce its emissions, which means moving away from air freight.
McLachlan added that nothing in the subsidy program at this time appeared to prevent aviation emissions from rebounding to pre-pandemic levels. A government proposal to require an increasing percentage of sustainable biofuels only applies to domestic flights.
“The MIAC document suggests that passengers have subsidized air freight, which may not be sustainable in the long run as we reduce emissions,” McLachlan said.
“International air freight is not covered by the Emissions Trading System [which prices emissions] or the proposed mandate on biofuels. Currently, there is nothing in place to prevent aviation emissions from rising to pre-Covid levels. “
Before the pandemic, New Zealand’s share of international aviation produced well over 3 million tonnes of CO2 per year (compared to total emissions from the rest of the economy of around 80 million tonnes), although that international flights are not counted in New Zealand’s total under the Paris Agreement. This places the impact of long-haul flights somewhere between that of the Huntly power plant and the New Zealand operations and sales of oil company BP.
Assuming that emissions are now about a quarter of that total (based on Wood’s statement that flights are operating at 25%), total emissions from government-backed flights would easily exceed the 0.5 million threshold. tons.
However, it is unclear how much of this pollution the government is responsible for, as some thefts would likely have taken place anyway. Wood’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for an estimate of how many thefts would have taken place without the subsidies.
An airline industry representative said on Friday that many airlines could not have operated flights without the money because with most passenger flights less than a third full, it was ” almost impossible “for airlines to cover costs even with full cargo.
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“We could have been cut”
When asked if climate considerations had been discussed by Cabinet, Woods responded with another statement via email.
“The impact on the climate has been taken into account and the reality is that the emissions from international air travel with the program are still much lower than those before Covid … If we had not implemented the program , we would not have had a regular schedule of flights to and from New Zealand. Our government could not accept this as it would have meant companies would have been cut off from international markets and many jobs lost, tens of thousands of New Zealanders unable to return and potential shortages of essential supplies like medicines. .., ” he said.
“We continue to engage with the industry on the decarbonization of aviation, notably through our mandate on sustainable biofuels. “
The CIPA demand has rarely been triggered since it was introduced as part of the Green Party’s trust and supply deal with Labor.
Only eight CIPAs were completed in the requirement’s first year of existence, which was also a period of unusually high public spending. Commenting on the low number, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern previously said that many decisions that would have increased emissions never made it to Cabinet.
CIPAs were carried out for the government’s freshwater reforms and changes to the emissions trading system as well as the clean car standard.
A fast-track law to speed up eleven major infrastructure projects – including roads, cycling and rail – was not subject to a CIPA, after environmental officials informed Cabinet it was not possible to assess the impacts of the fast-track plan, as they did not. I don’t know the full list of projects that would end up being successful.