Despite the pandemic creating significant budgetary constraints for Christchurch Airport, it has strengthened the airport's sustainability ambitions and caused it to reprioritise its work programmes so as not to compromise its sustainability goals.
Tim McCready speaks with Christchurch Airport chief executive Malcolm Johns about the role infrastructure will play in moving New Zealand toward a lower carbon future and the opportunities it could bring for the airport.
Herald: What are the big challenges we need to overcome as we move toward a low carbon future?
The embedded nature of emissions in our daily lives shows just how hard the task ahead is if we are to stay within the 1.5 degree target set in Paris. For example, during Level 4 lockdown here in New Zealand, we effectively suspended 40 per cent of the national economy (including 90 per cent of aviation) and New Zealand's emissions fell just 8 per cent! This is largely because the economic ecosystem we have built up over generations is linear in nature and operates on a "take-make-waste" model. This has embedded emissions deeply into our everyday way of life, and in a way that makes it hard for the average person to individually have any real impact on overall emission reductions.
If we step back from this for a moment, the foundation of this conversation is energy. The linear system we have built has been scaled up over time through access to cheap energy. We are living today on yesterday's energy and we can only do that because of how carbon and the earth's process have given us a rich, dense, transportable and tradable energy commodity.
To use this energy, we have spent trillions of dollars on assets that predominantly only run on this ancient energy. To support the operation of these assets, we have built trillions of dollars more in infrastructure. Thus, today our way of life is built on a global economic system that deeply embeds our CO2 emissions dependency.
Cars are a good example.
Every day the world produces around 75,000 new cars and lite vehicles. More than 90 per cent of them have combustion engines and will last for several decades into the future, thus embedding new transport emissions into the system.
How can we move away from this reliance on "ancient energy"?
To change this system, we must undertake one of humanity's largest ever re-tooling events. This will either be a massive re-tooling of the assets towards those that operate on today's energy (renewable energy) or a massive re-tooling of the way we live. Our choice is either A: change the assets, B: change the people, or C: fail.
For most countries, A is the only real option left as changing the people is a slow process that can really only occur over time. But A requires a change plan and investment on a scale not seen in modern history. It will only happen if we achieve stakeholder equity in the transition. A grand carbon coalition between consumers and shareholders and Government. No one party will achieve such an energy transition on its own. This is incredibly disruptive stuff!
What role will infrastructure play in a lower carbon future?
Modern, sustainable infrastructure will play a key role. Where old infrastructure creates inefficiencies or fails to support lower carbon options for its users, it will need to be left behind in favour of new infrastructure that is sustainable and can support lower carbon futures for its users.
Christchurch Airport has worked to achieve stakeholder equity in many of the changes forced upon it from the earthquakes almost a decade ago. High consequence events give you the opportunity to bring in a "new normal". It's your choice how much "new" and how much "normal' is contained within this. From a sustainability perspective, we have driven our own asset transition plans to ensure our infrastructure, old and new, can support a lower carbon future for our customers and our business.
This has required some upfront investment which our shareholders have supported. The result is we have driven almost 90 per cent of Scope 1 CO2 emissions out of our business!
How has Covid-19 changed your ability to execute on your sustainability programmes?
Covid-19 cannot be an excuse for non-execution of sustainability programmes. It is reasonable that it may slow the pace of things in the short term if survival is paramount, but this is why a carbon coalition of stakeholders is important — you can only keep going in times like this when you have stakeholder equity available to allow you to do so.
Christchurch Airport has not only preserved near term investment in its sustainability programmes, it has also chosen to accelerate its plans in areas such as seeking 'Airport Carbon Accreditation Level 4' through the Airports Council International.
This programme is focused on creating long-term pathways to net zero carbon, aligned with global science-based targets to keep temperatures within 1.5 degrees. This would be a world-first in terms of Airport standards, and it is largely because Covid gave us the time and resources to look at committing to this programme sooner rather than later, that we pushed ahead with it. The earthquakes taught us that you make the 'new' in a new normal.
What opportunities could the drive toward a sustainable future mean for Christchurch Airport?
Airports are a portfolio business, largely serving planes, passengers and property, each with their own areas of opportunity.
We have proactively invested in infrastructure to eliminate the need for non-renewable energy power units to support aircraft on the ground, allowing them direct access to the electricity grid.
We have proactively invested in smart energy systems in our terminal, water efficiency, landfill elimination processes and most importantly, eliminating Scope 1 CO2 emissions from our terminal operation. We are now offering prospective tenants a menu of designed-in sustainability options for new buildings on our campus.
We have committed ourselves to building New Zealand's greenest airport in Central Otago, to allow airlines to utilise their most carbon efficient aircraft in the future. We would love to see the country take on the challenge of building a multi-region low carbon, integrated transport network around this new site, that will serve Kiwis and their visitors sustainably for generations to come.
The recent announcement from Airbus that it is exploring hydrogen aircraft caught our eye.
Christchurch Airport sits on top of one of New Zealand's largest natural aquifers and has access to acres of land for solar power arrays.