October 28, 2022 | By Bronwen Largier

Air New Zealand has released its annual sustainability report, which outlines the groundwork the airline is laying to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 but also sheds light on the challenges the entire aviation sector is facing in the race to environmental neutrality.

While making moves with government to establish local sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) production, the airline has received its first shipment of SAF from overseas and expects to be operating with SAF making up one per cent of its fuel mix by the end of next year and 10 per cent by 2030.

With SAF able to reduce carbon emissions by up to 80 per cent over the lifetime of the fuel, compared to traditional jet fuel, Air New Zealand chair Therese Walsh and its CEO Greg Foran note that “the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is the single biggest decarbonisation lever we can pull”.

If the airline meets its target and hits net zero by 2050, it is expecting that SAF will have made up half of its decarbonisation efforts – the highest single component of the journey to being carbon neutral.

The airline is also working towards incorporating electric, hydrogen or hybrid aircraft technology, which it projects will take out another 20 per cent of its carbon emissions.

By signing up to the Target True Zero Airline Demand Statement, Air New Zealand has pledged to have 30 per cent of new aircraft servicing short haul flights – under 750km – incorporating zero emissions aircraft technology by 2030.

To help progress “true zero” technology development, the airline has partnered with aircraft manufacturer Airbus on research into hydrogen-powered aircraft.

Inside the cabin, Air New Zealand is also taking steps to reduce single use plastics in 2023 and is introducing more sustainable tableware from this month.

However, the report also highlighted where the real challenges are for Air New Zealand and the wider aviation sector in their efforts to reduce their carbon footprints.

Chair of Air New Zealand’s Sustainability Advisory Panel, Sir Jonathon Porritt, highlighted the current constraints with SAF in a Q and A within the sustainability report, explaining the significant of the seemingly modest goal of running on 10 per cent SAF by 2030.

“Ten per cent may not sound much, but given the state of the SAF industry today, that’s massive,” he said.

“It’s not like just ordering in a gallon of SAF rather than a gallon of conventional jet fuel!

“Where is it coming from? Who says any particular SAF feedstock is genuinely sustainable? Who verifies all the data involved all the way along the supply chain? How will an airline manage the fact that a gallon of SAF costs between two and five times as much as a bog-standard, climate-wrecking regular gallon?”

He also referenced issues with diverting waste from landfill – an area where Air New Zealand has plateaued in their progress for now.

“It’s disappointing that Air New Zealand has made little progress over the last year on its target to reduce the percentage of its waste going to landfill,” said Porritt.

“But there are many other players involved – and some are significantly more proactive than others.”

But perhaps his most telling comment was about Air New Zealand’s realistic view, at this stage, of becoming the least unsustainable in the aviation sector.

“I’m not sure how many Air New Zealand colleagues thanked us for describing its overall challenge as ‘becoming the world’s least unsustainable airline’, highlighting the temporary impossibility for any airline becoming genuinely sustainable.

“But that of course is the truth of it – and that’s still a pretty good ambition for Air New Zealand from our point of view.”