Environmental group says Wellington Airport expansion at odds with city's zero-emissions plan

Artist impression of the Wellington Airport upgrade.
Artist impression of the Wellington Airport upgrade. Photo credit: Supplied

By Harry Lock of RNZ

An environmental organisation is calling for a halt to Wellington airport's expansion plans.

While international air travel might have ground to a halt, Wellington Airport's $1 billion expansion plans are getting ready for takeoff.

The airport is currently consulting with the public on some of the early development, which will see the airport grow out into the neighbouring suburbs.

Public feedback is currently being sought on some of the early development.

But Eleanor West, a Wellington-based volunteer for environmental group Generation Zero, said the plans did not make sense.

The capital has committed to being net zero emissions by 2050, and a more than 40-percent reduction by 2030.

"Our main opposition to the airport expanding is that that's putting more emissions in the air," West said.

"If we're having more planes in Wellington, then that's not going to be good for our climate change outcomes."

The development is part of the airport's 2040 "Master Plan" - the blueprint for accommodating a forecasted 12 million passengers passing through every year.

That's nearly double the number of passengers which came through in 2019.

And while their expansion plan was conceived pre-COVID-19, in a statement, the airport said the impact of the last 12 months was not slowing it down.

"While COVID-19 has delayed timeframes, all industry forecasts expect these growth levels to return in future.

"As an infrastructure provider, it's our responsibility to plan for long term requirements well in advance."

The airport has committed to reducing its operational emissions by 2030, and it was optimistic about a future with more efficient and even electric aircraft on the horizon.

But director of the environmental studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, Ralph Chapman, said now was not the time to rush into things.

"The COVID-induced hiatus provides an excellent opportunity to put airport's expansion plans on hold, and reconsider the sector's responsibility for aviation emissions," Chapman said.

"I would recommend they developed plans for the sector that start sharing responsibility for active emission reduction."

While responsibility for international air travel emissions did not lie with airports or even governments, Chapman said central government should step in.

"We need to either tax international travel, or have a policy which caps the total carbon emissions from this group, and brings it down over time.

"Just in the same way that every other group in society has to reduce emissions. There's absolutely no case for letting that industry or sector get off scot-free."

The Climate Change Commission has said it will consider what the government can and should do regarding international air travel in three years time.

Meanwhile, Generation Zero's Arron Cox wanted Wellington City Council to show leadership on the matter.

"What the council needs to do, as a shareholder of the airport, but also as a council, is look at more strategically, how can we promote lower carbon forms of transport to and from Wellington?

"The imperative is we want more people coming to Wellington to live and visit, and I don't disagree with that, but we want to make sure they're coming in a way that doesn't emit as much carbon."

Wellington city Councillor in charge of climate change Tamatha Paul said the airport should be more proactive in aligning with public transport.

"Some of the information in that proposal, particularly around there being no minimum or maximum car parking requirements, it seems like there's a very blase approach to car parking facilities," Paul said.

"That totally goes against and contradicts all of the work we're trying to do in the public transport space and get people out of cars."

She agreed the council needed to use its influence over the airport to make sure they saw eye-to-eye.

The Wellington Chamber of Commerce however, was fully in support of the airport's intentions.

President Jo Healey said: "We know that the pandemic hasn't fundamentally changed Wellington's future requirements, to be able to cater for the expected growth of the city's transport needs and beyond, and we need to start mobilising ourselves on that".

Meanwhile, protest action against the proposed development - featuring a five metre tall blow up dinosaur - is being planned by Generation Zero on Friday.