With flying being one of the most carbon-intensive activities, Sahra Kress won’t step on a plane again.
Planes allowed Kāpiti midwife Sahra Kress to make New Zealand her home, and to assist healthcare providers in Papau New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. But after seeing Pacific villages threatened by climate change, she’s shunning the carbon-intensive form of travel.
“I can’t justify it any more,” said the German-born activist. “We need to work for a better, not bigger, future.”
Kress is campaigning for large investments in lower-emitting train lines and limited air travel: “Flying must be for essential purposes only. Non-essential flying is complicit with climate breakdown.”
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Kress shifted to Aotearoa to study midwifery, as the system is unique in the world. She met her Kiwi husband, and settled in Kāpiti more than two decades ago. Her humanitarian work, finding “local solutions for their communities”, took her around the Pacific and to southeast Asia.
On these travels, Kress saw the impacts of a world 1.1C hotter than pre-industrial times.
“Bleaching coral was a really striking thing for me – seeing communities having to move, because of the seawater coming into their villages,” she said. “I’ve always been a strong environmentalist. But actually seeing it myself and realising my flying was directly contributing to that, I realised I needed to take responsibility for local solutions.”
In her line of work, the state of the planet in the coming decades is often on Kress’ mind.
“I’m delivering babies and I’m thinking about their future. And suddenly, it became incredibly obvious: there’s a disconnect. I see the resources that go into saving a premature babies’ life… and yet we have very little risk management for that child’s future.”
Kress has able to continue humanitarian and research work. Her vow allowed her research team from the Solomon Islands to take a more central role, including presenting their paper at a conference.
“They’re consulting with me remotely, but they’re doing it themselves. And that’s a wish fulfilled,” she added. “It’s possible to have an impact and not to fly.”
Kress is sceptical that new technology – such as electric or hydrogen planes – will swoop in to save the day.
There’s a type of turbulence that can’t be seen by pilots, or easily picked up by radar or satellite. It could become more prevalent.
But intercity rail services could already replace domestic aviation, Kress said. Her birth country offered an example. “My sister has a young child. But because we have trains with really good connections, we don’t end up needing to use cars at all.”
In her commitment to not fly, Kress may never again see her overseas family face-to-face. Family members understand, she said, even if they’re not quite ready to take a similar stance.
“It’s a hard message, but the vision is worth it. The vision is a liveable and healthy future.”
Her brother – a former pilot – was a source of support. In fact, he’s given up his carbon-intensive career and promised to plant a tree for every hour of flight time he had logged, or 10,000 trees. “It’s not just me.”
Kress protested about the business-as-usual approach of the aviation sector, during the NZ Airports Hui 2022 in Palmerston North this month. Christchurch Airport’s plan to build a new airport by the Central Otago town of Tarras “is a joke”, she said.
Kress purchased an ebike and trailer for her midwifery work on the Kāpiti Coast, and advocates for safer cycling infrastructure. On Friday, she joined the School Strike 4 Climate protest at Parliament.
The vision of the world we’ll leave our children and grandchildren will motivate society, she said.
“Systems change will make the biggest impact, but it’s really empowering to look at visionary change, that may feel like sacrifices at the time… Knowing that we are making a difference on a personal level is hugely important and hopeful.”