MEDIA RELEASE – Wednesday 26th April 2023 


The group of 11 leading academics who have spoken out against the proposed new international airport in Central Otago has now grown to 77 members, and includes peers from around New Zealand and the world. Informed Leaders has today launched an index of national and international research to “inform the conversation”.

James Higham, Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Tourism at the University of Otago, originally brought the group together and says that it grew swiftly after the Christchurch Airport company dismissed its concerns in February. Airport executives had stated that the group’s call for a stay on the project was “premature” and that their “assumptions are wrong.”

“To have nearly 80 leading academics – many of them professors and associate professors – now speaking out against an infrastructure project on the grounds of science is no small matter,” he said. “We have not done this lightly. It’s because we are all very concerned that significant, established science is being ignored, and that this project should not proceed.”

Significant concerns, based on “broad scientific consensus”

Concerns cited include  the “significant environmental, social, cultural and economic as well as political and reputational consequences” of failing to reduce carbon emissions by building a new airport during a climate emergency.  They also point to the need to move “away from the volume-based growth approach” to tourism which “underpins the airport proposal”. 

Professor Higham says that the research index represents decades of research covering multiple relevant topics. Significantly, it includes dozens of peer reviewed papers which point to decarbonisation of aviation being “a long way off” and highlight significant concern around the airline industry talking of achieving “zero carbon aviation” or “net zero” based on technologies which currently do not exist. 

“There is wide scientific consensus that there is still a lot of work to do, and many years – probably decades – before the industry could have any hope of significant decarbonisation. Zero carbon aviation is even further away. It is far from being a likelihood, and certainly not a done deal.” 

Other concerns include the negative impacts on Central Otago’s environment, flora and fauna, strain on regional infrastructure, impact on local and regional communities, wider economic consequences, intergenerational impacts and the wellbeing of those living locally.

“We’re speaking out because, against this backdrop of research and data, building a new international airport in Tarras, or anywhere in New Zealand for that matter, is a nonsense and would be wrong for so many reasons.”

Follow up letter ignored

Christchurch Airport responded to the group’s first open letter in February. However, in a follow up letter to Christchurch Airport in March, the group responded directly to the airport company’s dismissive approach to independent science:

The existing science and research is extensive. It has been produced following rigorous research protocols, peer reviewed before publication, and it is independent in that it is not driven by a commercial imperative or interest. In other words, it is unbiased. The research and science is unequivocal. Unfortunately it casts a long shadow over your proposed airport.

To say that “there is ample evidence that technologies exist to achieve transition” is incorrect. As you know, delivering low carbon aviation at scale is fraught with numerous thorny issues and there are presently no reliable solutions. It is admirable that groups of organisations are working on this, but that mahi in itself does not justify the building of a new airport. 

Airports are, by their very nature, carbon intensive businesses, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Global aviation growth continues to fuel growth in harmful emissions, as it has for many decades and is forecast to continue to do over the coming decades. A new international airport undeniably invites more growth.

Finally, whilst we applaud and encourage any New Zealand business reducing its carbon footprint, Christchurch Airport’s claim of being “climate positive” should be heavily qualified. As you know, you include in this claim less than 1% of the emissions that, by your own calculations, your airport enables. Even with the announcement of your Kowhai Park solar project, these emissions are huge.

Christchurch Airport has acknowledged receipt of this second letter, sent seven weeks ago, but has not replied.

Next steps: evolving index and research briefings

Now that the index has been launched, Professor Higham says that as a next step the group is working on is “specific briefings around key topics” relevant to the airport proposal. “We want to make this independent body of research even more accessible and widely understood, so that it can be a key part of the ongoing conversation.” He says that to ignore it would be irresponsible.

“Given the potential for significant, intergenerational impacts, these decisions should not be made in isolation by individual companies”, he said. “The available research and data should be factored in, discussed openly with stakeholders and key communities. We are committed to enabling this approach, and we will share it with key decision makers, and the wider public.”

He says that he and others are calling for a “national conversation” about new airports.

Professor Higham says that the index will evolve. “We will keep it updated as new research is published, and we’ll also expand its scope over time.”

The research index and list of academics can be found at


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