Say no to planned Otago airport, academics urge

Christchurch Airport’s plan for a new runway at Tarras has a fresh set of opponents: professors concerned it would “fatally undermine” climate goals.

In 2020, Christchurch Airport announced it had purchased 750 hectares near the picturesque Central Otago town of Tarras, an hour’s drive from Queenstown.

Residents were surprised. Some plan to contest the proposalwith one farmer refusing to sell a parcel of land critical to the project. Eleven academics – from climate scientists and tourism researchers to Māori and indigenous studies leaders – are lending their voices to the fight, publishing an open letter.

The runway would be big enough to serve wide-bodied jets, allowing long-haul flights in and out of the airport. Long-haul air travel produces lots of climate-warming gases on top of water vapor that heats the atmosphere.

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The open letter was sent to Christchurch Airport, but also new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, his deputy Carmel Sepuloni, Christchurch mayor Phil Mauger, Christchurch councilors and Otago councillors.

The council owns a 75% share in Christchurch Airport, with the remaining shares owned by the Crown.

The letter noted that both owners had declared climate emergencies. “We therefore urge you in the strongest possible terms to put a stay on the Central Otago Airport proposal.”

The airport would create additional flights, the academics said. The design left enough room for the airport to expand its operations after it opened. “This approach is fundamentally at odds with the urgent need to half carbon emissions by 2030 in accordance with Paris 2015 climate commitments.”

The academics said they were “not anti-airport, anti-aviation, anti-business or anti-development”.

As well as setting domestic climate goals, the Government adopted a global goal for net-zero aviation emissions by mid-century. “Building a new airport catering to conventional wide-body jet aircraft would fatally undermine this goal,” the professors said.

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A plane trip – particularly a short-haul flight – is one of the highest-emitting activities most people will undertake in their lives. A large jumbo jet will burn a liter of fossil-derived fuel every 15 seconds. In addition, the vapors from airplanes help clouds to form, which traps extra heat from the sun in the atmosphere. For those reasons, swapping a plane journey for a Zoom meeting or a lower-carbon train trip is a double win for the climate.

Prototype electric passenger planes have completed test flights, and can travel shorter distances. But zero-carbon planes are not yet available to airlines, and face “enormous technical challenges”, the letter argued.

New Zealanders have high per-capita aviation emissionsthe academics said.

“Government is asking others – such as the farming sector, the public sector and the energy sector – to take urgent and major steps to curb emissions.”

Signatory James Higham said it would be morally wrong to build the airport. “Given the available research and data, and there is plenty of it, it makes no sense whatsoever to build a new airport at Tarras – or anywhere else in New Zealand for that matter.”

The group will publish a collection of research to back up the points raised in their letter, Higham said.

The letter was signed by:

Professor Jonathan BostonEmeritus Professor of Public Policy, Victoria University

Professor James HighamProfessor of Sustainable Tourism, University of Otago

Professor Bronwyn HaywardDirector of The Sustainable Citizenship and Civic Imagination Research Group, University of Canterbury

Professor Shaun HendyCenter for Science and Society, Victoria University

Distinguished Professor Robert McLachlanSchool of Mathematical and Computational Sciences, Massey University

Professor Ilan NoyChair in the Economics of Disasters and Climate Change, Victoria University

Professor Steven RatuvaDirector of the MacMillan Brown Center for Pacific Studies, University of Canterbury

Professor James RenwickProfessor of Physical Geography, Victoria University

Distinguished Professor Dame Anne SalmondMāori Studies, University of Auckland

Professor Hannah SmithHead of Whiti o Rehua School of Art, Massey University

Professor Anita WrefordAgribusiness & Economics Research Unit, Lincoln University

Christchurch Airport, Christchurch City Council and State-owned Enterprises Minister David Clark​ were all contacted for comment.

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