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Taiwan diary: Getting there

Thursday 23 Mar 23 10:45am

Carbon News editor Jeremy Rose is in Taiwan attending the Taipei Cycle show and talking to thought leaders in the climate change space. Over the next week he’ll be filing a daily diary updating us on what’s he’s seen and learnt.

I wrote my first climate change story nearly a quarter of a century ago, and I remember just one of the questions from the interview: “Can you justify both of us being flown to San Francisco for this conference?

The conference was the State of the World Forum and the interviewee was the brilliant physicist and former head of Greenpeace Germany, the late Hans Peter Durr.


His answer didn’t make it into the story but it’s stayed with me.


A proponent of what we would now call de-growth, Durr argued that those of us living in the rich world were living well beyond the planet’s limits and we needed to cut back our energy consumption urgently if a climate catastrophe was to be avoided. And our flying addiction was a significant part of that over consumption.


But, he assured me, my article only needed to result in three or four people deciding not to take a long haul flight for our flights to have been worthwhile.


I distinctly recall a sinking feeling in my stomach as he said that because it seemed so implausible.


The State of the World was launched by Mikhail Gorbachev and Jimmy Carter in 1995 and saw itself as an alternative to Davos - with thought leaders rather than the moneyed elite in the driving seat.


But it had nothing like the mainstream media cut-through.


In 1998 Saatchi and Saatchi became an official sponsor and its then head, Kevin Roberts, decided to fly a gaggle of Kiwi journalists over to produce a live website featuring interviews and stories of that year’s event.


A brand new webpage with stories on international affairs was never likely to set any readership records and it definitely wasn’t on day two of the conference when I spoke to Durr.


The points he made are as valid today as they were then. And his concept of rationing “energy slaves” on a global level to limit our individual consumption in line with what the planet can sustain is, if anything, more urgent and relevant now than it was then. (We’re republishing the story today, so you can judge for yourself.)


A quick google fails to find a single mainstream media article about his energy slave concept and just a few mentions in academic papers.


Zoom forward to this week and I find myself pondering the same question: can my trip to Taiwan to report on the Taipei Cycle Show and climate change be justified in global warming terms?


Long haul flights and the trail of good intentions


New Zealanders are the sixth highest aviation emitters in the world. It makes sense, we’re a relatively rich country a long way from anywhere. 


It’s been estimated 12% of New Zealand’s gross CO2 emissions come from aviation.


While booking my tickets Air New Zealand offers me the chance go offset the 18,700 km return trip for $81.04.


It sounds like a bargain, right? 


But like 93% of Air New Zealand customers I’m yet to be convinced of the merits of offsetting.


I totally get that we need to fly less and that planting more trees, particularly native trees, is a good idea. But how are the two connected? If want to play my part in limiting global warming I should limit my flying to whatever my conscience allows and contribute to regenerating the ngahere regardless of my travel plans.


So where would that $81.04 go?


“Each time a customer selects the FlyNeutral box, 50% of the funds collected go to offset that passenger’s flight-related carbon emissions,” an Air NZ spokesperson says.


The remaining 50% of the funds collected from a customer are directed to third party projects to be used exclusively for purposes that will accelerate positive climate or biodiversity outcomes in New Zealand. Currently, that contribution goes to Trees That Count to fund the planting of native trees across New Zealand. Further information can be found at our Trees That Count portal."


So far this year, nearly 29,000 trees have been planted.


I asked Air New Zealand, why if they really believed the emissions from their flights could be offset for such a seemingly small amount, they didn’t simply build the price into the tickets and claim to be climate neutral. 


“Air New Zealand is committed to finding a more sustainable way to connect the world and reach our goal of net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050,” a spokesperson replied.


“To do this we are investing in actual decarbonisation solutions such as sustainable aviation fuel and next generation aircraft technology.


“In addition, we continue to offer customers the option to offset their flight related emissions.


They’re not the only one offering offset service but they do seem to be the cheapest.


The New Zealand Toitu travel emission calculator said the economy class trip would generate 3.6 tonnes of CO2e which could be offset at the cost of $97.50 per tonne with native forest planting or $351 for the return journey.



There was also a renewable energy option and low emission cook stove option - both considerably cheaper.  However, all were listed as currently “not available.”


Switzerland-based MyClimate also offers an offsetting service and its calculator suggested three options for offsetting my journey: for 284 Swiss francs (NZ $491) 50% of the emissions can be offset in Switzerland or alternatively 86  Swiss francs NZ($148) it can be done in Nicaragua. 


Some of the price difference might be down to Air New Zealand’s decision not to include radiative forcing - the fact that greenhouse gases released at altitude have a greater impact - in its calculation.


Offsetting makes sense for companies wanting to illustrate to shareholders and customers that they are taking their carbon emissions seriously and, in some cases, claiming carbon neutral status as a result.


But what’s it about for the rest of us? In a word, I reckon it’s greenwash. It’s about convincing us that we can continue flying at the same rate as before and everything will be okay. If not today, tomorrow with sustainable aviation always just around the corner.


The airlines are throwing everything they’ve got at the story and we in the media are giving them a helping hand.


By my rough count there’s 10 to 15 stories in the local about the future of aviation for every story calling for people to fly less.


Stories about battery planes, sustainable aviation fuel and hydrogen powered planes appear almost weekly giving the impression that there’s a solution just around the corner. There’s not.


So what chance have I got of convincing myself at the end of this trip that those 3.2 tonnes of extra carbon has been offset by the articles I produce?


The economic purists will point out that New Zealand’s domestic emissions are set by the ETS cap and so even in the unlikely event that one of my articles leads to New Zealand companies or individuals adopting innovative Taiwanese solutions that reduce their emissions it won’t make our road to net zero any quicker - possibly a little cheaper.


International aviation is different. It’s not included in the Nationally Determined Contribution of states and, bizarrely, aviation fuel on international flights is tax free by international agreement.


So a couple of people deciding to holiday at home instead of taking a long haul trip is all it would do justify my trip. But I’m not holding my breath.


It’s just as likely - perhaps more likely - that my articles and social media posts will contribute to someone’s decision that it’s time for another overseas jaunt.



Jeremy Rose travelled to Taiwan with assistance from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Story copyright © Carbon News 2023
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