Air New Zealand is on a credible journey to try and be "the world's least unsustainable airline", the chair of the national carrier's Sustainability Advisory Panel, Jonathon Porritt, told an assembly of senior politicians, airline stakeholders and journalists in Wellington.
The son of Arthur Porritt, the New Zealand governor-general between 1967 and 1972, and a former leader of the UK Green Party said airlines around the world face an "existential challenge" in responding to climate change.
Porritt acknowledged his comments were "not really what you describe as Luxon language", referring to the airline's chief executive, Christopher Luxon. He has committed Air New Zealand to a challenging target of achieving carbon-neutral operations by 2020.
"Christopher would much rather go to 'most sustainable airline', but we are living in a very real world when it comes to knowing what sustainability really means."
Porritt praised Air NZ for standing out among global aviation operators.
Given the scale of the global challenge represented by climate change "what will it require from here on in for an airline to resecure its social licence to operate year on year?"
Last week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of the size of the challenge the world faces keeping global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century if catastrophic impacts from climate change are to be avoided.
Airlines are major greenhouse gas emitters, so they would need to be "the best in procuring efficiencies for every kilometre flown" in "an industry that is not familiar with particularly sophisticated leadership".
They would have to be the best at exploring new technological breakthroughs, such as in bio-fuels, and "the best in terms of partnering with civil society and with governments to make things happen much, much faster than they are at present".
Porritt called on all air travellers to start offsetting their personal greenhouse gas emissions when they flew. Air NZ's annual sustainability report found that while 130,000 travellers voluntarily offset their emissions last year compared with 40,000 the year before, that covered only 5 per cent of flights.
Rejecting the view of some environmental groups that carbon offsetting was "one of the closest things to the Devil in this world", Porritt said "you have to go to a place where you take personal responsibility for your carbon footprint".
Porritt also said that anyone who now discussed climate change as an environmental issue was not yet in the right space.
"When people start talking about climate change as an existential threat to the future of mankind, then you know they are in the right space."
Porritt apologised to his Air NZ hosts if he had "overdone the apocalypse" but "it's not often you turn up here one week after the publication of a report like that", referring to the latest IPCC report.
Air NZ used its annual sustainability breakfast to announce that it was: removing all single-use plastic from its domestic flights and would now only use recyclable materials; had partnered with Ngati Porou to serve fish from the Gisborne/Tairawhiti region on its flights; and formed a partnership with the developers in New Zealand of an electric-powered self-flying taxi, which was touted as a low-carbon traffic-beater.