COMMENT

International air travel is booming.

It has doubled since 1999 and on current trends will double again by 2037 according to the International Air Travel Association (IATA). The number of commercial aircraft was 3700 in 1970 and is 21,000 today.

The problem with a rapidly expanding aviation sector is that the greenhouse gases it generates are becoming a major contributor to global warming. The Potsdam Institute for
Climate Impact Research has found that carbon dioxide is at its highest level in the atmosphere for 3 million years.

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The United Nations has recently warned that global warming is accelerating
and has expressed alarm that 90 per cent of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases is
being absorbed by the world's oceans. The heat going into the oceans is not
just melting ice at the poles and killing coral reefs, it is also becoming a threat
to phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are tiny plants which form the basis of the
marine food chain and supply between half and two thirds of the oxygen in the
atmosphere.

A University of Leicester study shows that an increase of 6 degrees centigrade in the surface layer of the world's oceans could stop the production of oxygen by phytoplankton. That study estimated that the 6C increase could happen by 2100 which would be in the lifetimes of some of the baby-boomers' grandchildren.

Well off baby-boomers form a significant part of today's international air travelling public. These people are by and large the achievers of our society.

They have worked hard, made always sensible, often smart, decisions in relation to saving and building their wealth and justifiably feel entitled to make one, two or more overseas trips each year as a reward for what they have achieved. Many make trips to see children and grandchildren scattered like priceless jewels around the world. Who would deny them this?

For starters, it could be those self-same grandchildren. Recent worldwide demonstrations by their generation protesting lack of action by governments in dealing with climate change show that these school-age children well understand the state of the planet they will inherit if there is continued inaction on climate change.

Students crammed onto Parliament's front lawn during their climate change protest on March 15. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Students crammed onto Parliament's front lawn during their climate change protest on March 15. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Our Prime Minister, who right now may be at the peak of her power thanks to her inspirational leadership in the aftermath of the Christchurch atrocity, should not expend one breath in exhorting the baby-boomers to restrain their international flying.

Instead, she should declare a climate emergency and ban all government-related international air travel below the level of Prime Minister, Finance Minister, Foreign Minister and Trade Minister. Below that level, conferences, meetings etc. should be attended by Skype, email and telephone. That will send a clear message to all generations of Kiwis contemplating international air travel.

If our Prime Minister takes this action, I believe many governments around the world will follow suit at least in restraining some of their government-related international air travel. More importantly this will fulfil the Prime Minister's promise to the protesting school students that their voice is being heard.

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* David Stevenson is a freelance writer, based in Wellington