Le Cahier Bleu

What to do with the airport

Je suis depuis tres longtemps preoccupe par le changement climatique. C’est donc naturellement que je me suis penche sur le cas de l’aeroport de Wellington. Qui plus est, il est situe en plein centre ville, et a donc un impact tres important sur la qualite de nombreux riverains. A force de partager mon opinion sur Twitter, entre autres, j’avais meme reussi a convaincre un des candidats a la mairie de Wellington, de mettre en place un plafond aux emissions de l’aeroport. Tout au long d’un weekend, a sa demande, j’avais travaille le sujet et resume ma proposition dans une presentation de six slides. Ce fut un succes de le voir inclure cette proposition dans son programme, mais helas, il n’a pas été elu. Une semaine apres le resultat des elections, l’aeroport a devoile son plan de developpement, et ca m’a pousse a prendre la plume. L’article ci-dessous a été publie sur Scoop et repris par des journalistes et scientifiques locaux.

Le 1 Novembre 2019 - Tags: opinion, scoop

Wellington Airport is a major part of the city’s landscape. It is geographically central. It plays an important role in the economy. A lot of people and businesses rely on it to organise their lives, whether for an occasional trip or regular commute. However, air traffic comes with many unwanted by-products, and adversely impacts nearby communities.

The recent release of the airport’s 2040 masterplan raises important questions about how these issues will be dealt with.

Hopefully, tools exist, at a local level, to ensure the situation doesn’t worsen. The Wellington City Council must use them.

The Airport is an essential link with other cities in New Zealand and Australia (the “direct” flight to Singapore stops in Melbourne). 250 planes take off from its runway every day. This amounts to a few thousand tons of CO2 released daily in the atmosphere (when accounting for descent, take-off and climb). This makes the Airport responsible for 25 to 30% of Wellington greenhouse gas emissions.

At a time where climate change is on everyone’s mind, this poses a problem. We would need to plant 5,000 trees each day to compensate for the airline’s emissions, for as long as the Airport is operating. That’s a new Town belt every 3 months! Birds would love it, but it’s not happening.

Beyond climate change, the air traffic has a huge impact on local communities (roughly 50,000 people if you include all suburbs east of Roseneath); air pollution and noise pollution are serious health hazards. Jets landing and taking off are the most harmful, leaving a kerosene smell, breaking the soundscape, interrupting conversations, and for the closest residents, shaking the house; even out of sight, noise pollution intrudes on residents’ lives, especially with the low flying aircraft from the aero club: these recreational aircraft can turn in circles over the harbour for hours, buzzing continuously each day of every weekend, for the whole day.

Last week, the Airport released its expansion plan. Because the number of travellers is expected to double by 2040 (from 6 million passengers a year to 12 million), it is planning to enlarge its apron by 50% (at the minimum), as well as increase the number of aircraft movements. In 2040, the Airport expects 375 flights taking off, every day.

This plan, disclosed a week after the election to avoid a public debate, invites the public to provide feedback. It needs to be submitted to wlg2040@wellingtonairport.co.nz by the 17th of November, only three weeks after the vision was announced.

Three weeks, for a billion dollar project, to consult with local communities, before starting detailed planning. (When a local resident was complaining about the airport, an associate suggested residents had the choice to not live in the area… as if the Eastern suburbs belong only to the Airport.)

The Airport, eager to demonstrate its environmental conscientiousness, tried to pre-empt any idea the additional traffic would increase air pollution by stating “next generation aircraft are 20% to 30% more efficient …”. However, even if every new flight is operated on the so called “next generation” aircraft (whatever that means), the emissions will still go up (50% more flights being 30% more efficient means more air pollution). Moreover, even if they are also more noise efficient (for example being quieter per passenger), more flights will mean more noise in the absolute for local residents.

So how well does greenhouse gas emission increase stack up in the face of climate emergency? Well, it does not. Accepting it as inevitable is accepting that nothing can be done to mitigate climate change. It repeats a business model that has caused climate change, while taking it to the next level (ironically, and a side note, the Airport has a budget line in its plan to address the effects of climate change that it has contributed to in the first place!). It perpetuates a business model for which we know the consequences are dire.

What can be done? First, a lid must be placed on greenhouse gas emissions from air traffic going through the airport. The number of flights could increase only on condition they do so 100% sustainably.

This would not open the book for more flights for a while as the technology to fly sustainably is not ready yet. But it would change 30 of 40 years of inaction; it would put the environment, i.e. the people, first, before profit.

Limiting flights would have an interesting consequence: demand would eventually exceed the offer, which would increase the price of flying to and from Wellington. This is where it becomes interesting: everyone agrees the price of flying does not accurately represent the true costs (environmental costs are not included in pricing) and everyone agrees there should be carbon tax on flying (even Andy Foster).

The consequence of putting a lid on emissions would achieve exactly that: increase the cost of flying by blocking additional emissions from air traffic. This should satisfy even Airport shareholders, as dividends would increase. The lid could be calculated based on average aircraft emissions during landing, take off and climb, or simply by number of kerosene-powered flights allowed per day.

The second measure that needs to be implemented is to limit Airport expansion to mitigate the impact on local residents. Looking at the proposed plan, which sees green space (the golf club) concreted for more planes, one can ask: where is the limit to the expansion? Should we stop when Strathmore and Miramar have all been bought out and covered in tarmac? And to the West, should we bring Kilbirnie down, because the Wellington Chamber of Commerce has decided it is vital for our economy like it did for the runway extension?

Surely everyone has in mind a limit to the Airport’s expansion – and neighbouring communities should have a strong input in setting it. The nuisances have probably reached the maximum the Eastern suburbs are prepared to take.

If these two measures were implemented, what role could the WCC play? Well, it could do a lot. By refusing to step in, the WCC concedes it doesn’t have the ability to protect its communities. But this is inaccurate. For example, the district plan is due to be reviewed soon. This would be a great opportunity to establish, once and for all, what Wellington, as a community of people living in this lovely corner of New Zealand, is prepared to accept in terms of the Airport’s footprint.

Probably to the Airport shareholders’ great dislike, the community would say: “The Airport shall not grow any bigger.”

The district plan could also be the place to set a cap to its emissions: “The Airport should not allow airlines to emit more than so many thousand tons of CO2 per day”. And if the district plan comes too late, what about by-laws? What better use case then to use by-laws to structure how the Airport can operate within our community?

The WCC might say it’s not able to influence these matters. But what about Paris, Madrid, London, etc where regulation has had dramatic effects on reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Wellington should follow their example by tackling its biggest polluter, the Airport. Also, climate change is an issue for some, and not for others: but everyone, at every level, from individuals to governments, from businesses to NGOs, must take part and do everything they can to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Wellington Airport has given the community 3 minuscule weeks to provide feedback on its vision of expansion. It is vital that the WCC steps up to counter this plan. It is its duty to represent its communities. Let’s hope it will be up to the task.

Benoit Pette has been living in Miramar for 13 years. He has a strong interest in clean transport, renewable energy and sustainability.

- Benoit -