OPINION: Who defines what we mean by ‘sustainable’?

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Bird's eye. . . An aerial view of Queenstown Airport

David Mayhew is a Kelvin Peninsula resident who lives within Queenstown Airport’s proposed new noise boundaries

Expansion of noise boundaries and sustainable growth were two topics which featured in the initial reaction of councillors to the Queenstown Airport Corporation’s (QAC) draft Statement of Intent (SOI) debated at the Queenstown Lakes District Council meeting last Thursday, March 7. As the Otago Daily Times reported the next day, there was a call for greater recognition by QAC of “the community’s lack of enthusiasm for any form of expansion”.

There was also a call for some definition of what was meant by sustainable growth in the context of QAC saying: “we must continue to plan long-term for sustainable growth”.

As was discussed in this column last week, sustainable growth is a value-laden term: which values apply – business, community, environmental – and in what order of priority? By what measure do we judge whether the growth is sustainable?

‘Sustainable’ is a term which on its own hides more than it reveals; that’s why it needs to be defined. But that raises the question, who does the defining? Given the range of values involved, it cannot be left to QAC to determine what is sustainable, not least because of the airport’s location near the edge of the lake and in, what is fast becoming, the middle of the community (the recently-branded ‘Queenstown Central’ as an example).

That is to say, QAC is a business, but it operates within an environment and a community, and is a community-owned asset. The council, as 75 per cent shareholder, has the opportunity to direct QAC as to what is sustainable growth as part of its current deliberations on the draft SOI.

The council is a guardian of the Queenstown Lakes environment and is better placed to represent the wider community – residents, businesses, education and health providers and so on. As a local authority, it will also have some familiarity with working with a sustainability framework through which competing values can be assessed and balanced.

Rotorua Lakes Council, for example, was the first Aotearoa New Zealand local council to become a signatory to the United Nations’ Global Compact Cities Programme, which incorporates the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) used by cities to help long-term planning. Rotorua has used the programme’s City Scan tool to inform the focus of its Sustainable Living Strategy.

The Rotorua mayor’s introduction to that strategy could so easily have been written with Queenstown in mind (substituting mountain for geothermal):

“Rotorua is an extraordinary place to live for many reasons, but maybe the thing that is most unique about this place is our environment. The history of Rotorua has been defined by our geothermal landscape, lakes and forests and today the economic and social stability of our community is dependent on these special natural resources. When developing the Rotorua 2030 vision, we recognised that the good health of our natural environment was essential to the sustainability and growth of the Rotorua district.”

Without our natural environment, where would Queenstown be? That suggests environmental values should be at the forefront of any definition of sustainable growth of the airport.

What of community values? These are the principles we hold dear, individually or collectively, because of their contribution to our lives. The overwhelmingly negative response to expanding noise boundaries clearly suggests that a tipping point has been reached where there is a risk of irreversible damage to such values.

This goes directly to the airport’s social licence to operate at Frankton, which QAC recognises as important.

Business values are obviously in play. As a council-controlled trading organisation, the airport has to conduct its affairs in accordance with sound business practice. Interestingly, in the draft SOI, QAC states that managing aircraft movements within the existing noise boundaries will not impact adversely on its financial performance. While passenger numbers will grow at a reduced rate than recently experienced, revenue will increase ahead of expenses.

Indeed, given excess demand (for landing slots) over supply (number of slots limited by the existing noise boundaries), the price can legitimately be raised to ensure it properly reflects the costs (including externalities) while maintaining a profitable business.

A discussion of sustainability cannot conclude without mentioning climate change, the elephant in the room. Decarbonising the economy by reducing fossil fuel use is an integral part of our country’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. This inevitably involves regulating CO2 emissions (also required by Goal 13 of the SDGs). Tourism is a major contributor to CO2 emissions worldwide. Air travel is by far and away the largest part of that equation.

How does encouraging more aircraft movements into Queenstown help our collective endeavours to reduce carbon emissions?