Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton talks to Joanna Wane about his vision for more sustainable tourism.
"Flygskam" is the Swedish word for it: flight shame. Commercial aviation accounts for about 2.5 per cent of global carbon emissions; as the world gets serious about climate change, plane travel could become as socially unacceptable as smoking.
That's bad news for a long-haul destination like New Zealand, but Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton sees it differently. Handled properly, he says, the demand for sustainable travel has the potential to create a "significant advantage" for our tourism industry.
"People around the world are thinking, 'Should I travel so far?' That's a major risk for our industry," he told Canvas. "We need to be able to say we're leaving no stone unturned to try to put New Zealand tourism right at the leading edge of taking climate seriously. If you have a choice of destination, why not choose the one that is actually trying to do something about it?"
The introduction of a distance-based international departure tax is one of the key policy proposals in his new report "Not 100% – but four steps closer to sustainable tourism" (analysed here by travel writer Sarah Bennett).
Revenue from the tax would be funnelled into research aimed at decarbonising air travel, such as the development of alternative fuels and more efficient aircraft design, with a portion set aside to help fund projects in the Pacific Islands to mitigate and adapt to the impact of climate change.
Upton is more optimistic than many forecasters who see little real progress being made in the search for alternative energy sources over the next few decades. Current estimates are based on the historical cycle of technical development, he says.
"As we've seen with [the Covid-19] vaccines, if you're really up against the wall, you will find ways of doing things faster. If climate really is the urgent issue some of us think it is, pushing forward some of these solutions faster is going to be important. New Zealand won't be a leader, but we can contribute to it."
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In his role as an independent commissioner, Upton is known for deflecting personal questions and has stepped away from his political roots with the National Party. An MP for 30 years, he campaigned against the logging of native forests in Westland while in Opposition in the mid-80s, and spent a decade as Minister for the Environment.
After stepping down in 2001, he moved to France as chairman of the OECD's Round Table on Sustainable Development, and later headed the Environment Directorate, before picking up the commissioner's cudgel from his outspoken predecessor, Dr Jan Wright, in 2017.
He says the Government has traditionally thrown money at the front end of tourism, encouraging people to come here, then thrown money at the back end to tidy up after them.
While he hasn't looked closely at the controversy over plans for a new airport near Tarras in Central Otago, Upton questions the business case for infrastructure projects predicated on significant visitor growth.
"The pandemic has made us aware of just how easily an industry like this can be disrupted. If you take climate into the equation, that raises a real question about whether some of these very large developments will proceed if the shape of tourism changes."
Upton lives in the Waikato and was stunned by the reduction in traffic noise during the level 4 lockdown, even in his quiet corner of the country. He says natural tranquillity and quiet are intrinsic values we should be trying to protect, instead of allowing them to be slowly eroded.
"Everyone wants tourism to recover. The question then is, on what basis? When you have a breakpoint, it gives you room to take stock and put new measures in place. That's much harder to do when the ship is moving at full speed. It's an opportunity we shouldn't lose."