Tarras plan on wrong side of history

Legacy or liability? Prof James Highham, of the Otago University School of Tourism, examines the case for Tarras airport.

James Highham. Photo: supplied
James Highham. Photo: supplied

Valid concerns arise with the Tarras proposal: the urbanising impact of an international airport on the spacious splendour of Central Otago; why would Christchurch International Airport (CIAL) invest there other than to compete with Queenstown for profit?

Global context is important. United Nations Secretary-general Antonio Guterres this week described the latest report by the UN Climate Science Agency as "a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world''.

The truly dangerous radicals were those perpetuating "yesterday’s thinking" on fossil fuels and the economy. Governments and corporations were lying when they promised or reported progress on carbon emissions, Mr Guterres said.

At the recent Otago Tourism Policy School conference, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment chief economist Donna Purdue referred to the Transformative 2020s and included environmental degradation as a factor compromising the health of society.

New approaches, such as Doughnut Economics and Treasury’s Living Standards Framework, were urgently required, she said.

Prof Daniel Scott, of Canada’s University of Waterloo, addressing global tourism following Covid, said incremental change was not enough and tourism’s values and goals must be redefined.

The Glasgow COP26 Tourism Declaration is clear that aviation poses one of society’s greatest carbon risks.

The International Energy Agency suggests fundamental restructuring, such as capping business and long-haul air travel and shifting regional flights (if not electrified) to rail or other low-carbon transport modes.

Prof Scott noted the $US243 billion ($353 billion) in airline bailouts (as of September 2021) presented opportunities for governments to restructure aviation and impose green conditions.

To its credit, Air New Zealand acknowledged the need for transformational change in its 2019 Sustainability Report. If Air New Zealand does not act upon its words, uncomfortable policy-making is coming. Reducing aviation emissions has been in the too-hard basket for too long.

Within this context, it seems disingenuous for CIAL to claim it puts carbon emissions at the forefront of future planning. Building a new airport runs contrary to urgent restructuring.

CIAL is addressing Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions (emissions it directly owns or controls or indirectly requires). But quite how CIAL’s environmental claims account for Scope 3 emissions generated by airlines (sources CIAL does not own or control) is unclear.

This is a pivotal moment. Every effort is needed to avoid a future of more than 1.5degC. The window of opportunity is closing.

We must address difficult-to-abate emissions from sectors such as steel making, cement, transport and freight, all central to building and operating airports.

The economic transformation required to tackle climate change must put stakeholder values before shareholder value, and prioritise environmental protection.

A national strategic approach to air transport infrastructure is required.

Integrated, holistic planning must replace reactive, siloed and regionally-competitive debates.

The United Nations Climate Science report is clear that accepting a lower consumption lifestyle is the only fast acting policy move we have left to prevent climate change disaster.

Tourism’s future success will be measured in relation to values: social, cultural, economic and environmental.

Fortunately this is not lost on the Central Otago District Council, which is co-designing its Tourism Central Otago destination management plan with mana whenua and communities.

This approach aims to meet people’s needs while protecting and enhancing our social, cultural and natural environment. It is an example of tomorrow’s thinking.

No-one with any care or concern for Central Otago’s unique sense of place and its people would ever conceive of, let alone seriously consider, building an international airport in Tarras.

Within the context of reshaping the global economy in the Transformational 2020s, the airport is on the wrong side of history.


Poor, flawed and biased opinion. Tarras International Airport will be the best thing for the region and not just passengers but freight. Eventually it will replace Wanaka and Queenstown airports so whats lost??

Given the latest report from IPCC the idea of any expansion of airport capacity literally flies in the face of the global meltdown we are experiencing. The record number of ute sales fits the same insane pattern.

I agree with the author.NZ was stretched beyond capacity with tourists prior to covid.We do not need that volume increased with the resulting carbon emissions.

In other words, let's not have an airport where people want to go. Instead make them fly somewhere else and then drive individually to where they want to go. Brilliant!