We live in extraordinary times. The climate emergency is happening all around us, and the travel industry is fast waking up to the fact that business-as-usual will not work in a low-carbon world, if it is to continue to deliver societal and shareholder value in the long term.

Momentum to take action is gradually building, sped up by the recent launch of Travalyst, a sustainable travel coalition with an independent advisory board chaired by Forum for the Future CEO Sally Uren. Other pioneering industry players are also exploring the question of how the travel sector needs to transform.

In November 2019, our Founder-Director Jonathan Porritt, who is Chair of Air New Zealand’s Sustainability Advisory Panel, ran a Sustainability Masterclass with the aviation company, to help participants find practical actions that match the scale of the challenge confronting both Air New Zealand and the aviation sector.

Some key insights and questions emerged, which Air New Zealand will need to address in order to lead the aviation industry towards a low carbon world.

We need to move away from our current >2°C pathway

Amidst a flurry of governmental and business pledges, current data puts us on a trajectory to exceed 2°C of global warming, let alone 1.5°C. The effects of this are now disrupting our everyday lives in tangible ways that are acutely raising public awareness of climate change. By the year 2100, 190 million people will be permanently displaced by climate change. Tim Flannery, author, environmentalist and climate activist, described how the fire season in his home in New South Wales, Australia, has expanded from 4 months to 11 months of the year.

Against this backdrop, greenhouse gases generated by the aviation industry have increased by almost a third in the past 5 years. The sector needs to reverse this trajectory immediately to bring us back from a state of emergency.

Business needs to redesign its purpose

According to Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, share price is no longer a primary determinant of business success or its contributions to the economy. There are also growing calls to move beyond the widespread use of GDP as a measure of economic success. Matt Whineray, CEO of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, said that environmental and human rights impacts can no longer be regarded as business externalities.

Sam Mostyn, Non-executive Director and Sustainability Advisor, mentioned Mirvac as an example of a business redesigning its purpose, from a company managing property, to one that reimagines sustainable urban life. Sunny Verghese, Chair of WBCSD and CEO of Olam International, where employees have an app to track their carbon footprints, stressed the importance of business embodying the change it wants to see by empowering employees to direct the change in their own lives.

How should long-term value be re-defined for the aviation industry? How can Air New Zealand – and the sector as a whole – address the fundamentally high-carbon nature of flying?

‘Big bang’ solutions may not be truly systemic

The world is hungry to find technological answers to reducing carbon emissions. Switching from fossil fuels to biofuels and planting carbon-sequestering forests are often considered golden tickets for reducing and offsetting emissions. However, these are only part of a wider, complex picture; for example, Sunny raised the point that although new fuels must be part of the aviation industry’s long-term strategy, they can’t compete with food-producing agriculture for land use.

Whilst a growing list of corporations are pledging to become ‘carbon neutral’, their offsetting initiatives must also be accompanied by consistent and purposeful efforts to reduce baseline emissions.

Decarbonising rapidly in a fair, just and accountable way is a fundamental challenge for an airline

As new generations of travellers grow more informed, discerning and educated on the need for change, they will also place higher expectations on the aviation industry. New fuels, engines, and electric aircraft technology are not enough to reduce emissions at the pace that is needed. And yet, it is not feasible to simply wait for the next technological breakthrough.

How do aircraft purchasing cycles fit into the picture? Are we entering a cultural regime in which airlines that have the newest, ‘greenest’ fleet are lauded as the best? What happens to an old fleet of aircraft after being retired?

Behavioural and systemic change is required too. What type of behavioural changes will create the most impact? As a remote island nation, how can New Zealand adapt to the reduction of air travel? How can Air New Zealand engage with travel alternatives? Could flying to and from New Zealand be considered a special case as an island nation?

The Greta Thunberg effect is profound

Youth from ‘Generation Zero’ made it clear that the youth of today feel cheated by society’s climate inaction, but want to move forward in a way that unites, not divides, the young and old. They stated that, because of the need to address flyksgam (flight shame), young people tend to purchase flights from airlines that have the best sustainability credentials.

In essence, an airline like Air New Zealand provides less flyksgam because it invests in its sustainability strategy and carbon reduction program, it’s transparent about the supply chain, and it gives back to society. But how long will this last?

At the same time, amidst growing frustration with governmental inaction, people are increasingly placing trust in their employers to drive change. How can Air New Zealand continue to embed sustainability KPIs across all business units to drive greater accountability for sustainability and create positive change?

There are reasons to be hopeful, but we must act now

There is a danger of feeling powerless to act, through being submerged in fear of a possible >2°C world. To address this, said Kaitlin Yarnall, Chief Storytelling Officer, National Geographic, you need to tell a compelling story to create an impetus for change.

This is where futures for sustainability – creating possible, plausible and preferred future scenarios revealed by today’s emerging trends – can be a powerful tool. For radical change to happen, people must pay attention, make sacrifices, and get out of their comfort zones. Futures storytelling can unite people to work together towards a shared vision of the future. What does a 2050 world look like?

The future demands that the aviation sector takes immediate actions to address the climate emergency. Due to the complexity of the challenge, the decarbonisation journey will be circuitous and it will be tough to make the right choices along the way. But Air New Zealand is well positioned to achieve this, through robust partnerships with government, partners and suppliers. Through advocating, collaborating and using its position as a pioneer in the sector, it can take on a leading role in defining what decarbonisation means for the airline industry.

Special thanks to the Air New Zealand Sustainability team for hosting the conversation.

Oriana Brine is a Senior Sustainability Strategist at the Forum for the Future’s Singapore Office working alongside business to drive sustainability in Asia-Pacific.

If you’re eager to get involved with Travalyst or Forum’s work on climate change and developing strategies that are aligned with the goal of staying under 1.5°C, please get in touch with us.