After nearly 8 years, I’ve just stepped down as Chair as Air New Zealand’s International Advisory Panel. I’ve loved every minute of it – apart from the Covid years.

Just to set the scene:

  1. Yes, that means I’m in New Zealand, and will be here for another month.
  2. This has been the worst month ever for climate shocks of one kind or the other. Ironically, I was in the air for 13 hours on July 6th (my birthday, as it happens) which has now been confirmed as the warmest day ever since humans set about messing around with Planet Earth and its climate.
  3. Yes, as Antonio Guterres recently pointed out: ‘climate change is out of control’.
  4. Yes, July 6th was also the day when there were more flights in one 24-hour period since human beings first took to the skies.
  5. Yes, as any fool can tell, the aviation industry is also out of control. More than a thousand new aircraft have been ordered over the last few months – in India, China, the Middle East (with Saudi Arabia vying to supplant Dubai as the biggest transit hub in the world), and many other countries.
  6. But no, that is not the reason I am stepping down as Chair of the Panel. It’s just the next step in me stepping down from all my corporate sustainability commitments by the end of the year.

In the eyes of some campaigners, I’m already hopelessly compromised because of all of the above. I still believe (though with increasingly less conviction, I have to admit) that people will still be able to benefit from the privilege of flying (occasionally and expensively) in a genuinely sustainable future. Technology will (eventually) make that possible – but unfortunately not until 2040 at the earliest.

What makes that window of opportunity even narrower is the aviation industry’s abysmal leadership. Most airline CEOs are (even now, as accelerating climate change becomes ever more obvious) growth-obsessed clones of their growth-obsessed predecessors – who at least had the “excuse” of being largely ignorant about accelerating climate change. Not so today’s ramshackle bunch of big egos for whom ignorance can no longer be an excuse.

Beyond the airlines, IATA (the airlines’ trade association) is dominated by the industry’s lowest common denominators, and ICAO (the ultimate decision-making body for aviation) is dominated by governments which are themselves the most enthusiastic signatories to the collective Suicide Pact (another powerful contribution from Antonio Guterres) driving us ever closer to climate collapse.

There are a few airlines that stand out from that craven crowd, but the only one I really know anything about is Air New Zealand – which I once, somewhat ungraciously, described as “the world’s least unsustainable airline”.

Airlines are now required (theoretically) to demonstrate their flight paths to becoming “Net Zero” before 2050. Most airlines are either making it up or lying through their teeth. It’s a bit different in New Zealand, where the Government has mandated a disclosure regime (regarding both emissions of greenhouse gases and future financial risks) for all companies above a certain size – including Air New Zealand, which is 51% owned by the Government.

For the last few years, a small but incredibly talented team of sustainability professionals in Air New Zealand has set about meeting that challenge. And it is so much harder than you can possibly imagine!

For one thing, there are no immediately available quick wins – other than increased year-on-year efficiency improvements, which still require a dedicated, ruthlessly prioritised commitment to save every single kg of fuel on every single flight. Air New Zealand colleagues would be the first to admit that it still has a very long way to go in that regard.

Beyond that, the focus is on Sustainable Aviation Fuels, supposedly a drop-in substitute for today’s jet fuel. But Sustainable Aviation Fuels are hard, expensive, massively over-hyped by the industry, and (mostly) of questionable sustainability benefit. Beyond that, all-electric and electric-hybrid (short haul) options are also hard, expensive and at least 15 years away from commercial roll out. Beyond that, hydrogen is even harder, very expensive and at least 20 years from commercial roll out.

No other industry in the world faces that kind of challenge, with such limited opportunities for technological breakthrough. At the same time, few industries are less well-served by their collective leadership.

And that’s what’s made Air New Zealand so special. To be honest, there’s inevitably been a certain amount of greenwash along the way (from its former, pre-Covid CEO), but the intent has always been solid, with consistent backing from the Board. Both current CEO and Board Chair are now genuinely “on it”.

More importantly than that, Air New Zealand has been blessed by a dedicated sustainability team pretty much from the start, and never more so than today, passionate about what they’re doing, even as they come to terms (personally and professionally) with today’s climate chaos.

I have to admit that I felt more than a little emotional in bidding them farewell. Real grief (at what is already happening in our climate disrupted world) and “anticipatory grief” at what will inevitably follow, are complex emotions – which young people shouldn’t have to bear the weight of.

These are the voices that today’s industry leaders need to hear a lot more of if they are to salvage any vestige of integrity and self-worth.

“Whanau” is a Maori word often translated as “extended family”. But its meaning is more complex, including physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions.