Airport sustainability: From the ground up

29 Nov 2019 by Jenni Reid
Credit: iStock/yellowpaul

As public pressure mounts on the aviation sector, airports are finding ways to reduce their carbon footprint

Every three years, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) meets to discuss the biggest issues affecting the industry, its aim being to help its 193 member countries “share their skies and connect the world”. In 2019, what should have been a nine-day meeting was cut short by a day. The centre of the host city, Montréal, was all but impassable thanks to the presence of more than half a million protestors – including Swedish activist Greta Thunberg – calling on governments, corporations and individuals to take radical action to tackle climate change. It was a fitting sign of how the scrutiny being put on the environmental impact of various industries – aviation and beyond – is now impossible to ignore.

The ICAO responded with a message of support for the protests, acknowledging that international flights account for 1.3 per cent of manmade CO2 emissions each year, with aviation contributing 2 per cent overall. It stated that “action and faster innovation are now required to address aviation’s near and long-term impacts”.

Growing momentum

This did not come from nowhere; the conference agenda had already been stacked with panels and motions related to sustainability. For one, it was checking in on the progress of CORSIA, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, which is beginning to see organisations monitor and report on their carbon emissions. This will help to facilitate concrete methods of reducing emissions – its intention is to ensure that air traffic emissions do not increase after 2020 even as passenger numbers do.

It will also provide a counter-argument to proposals for environmental taxes that some in the industry fear could prove punishing, and to the growing “flight shame” movement that is seeing some people reduce or give up flying entirely. At an airline summit earlier in the year, Alexandre de Juniac, head of industry body IATA, warned 150 chief executives that “unchallenged, this sentiment will grow and spread”.

When it comes to emissions from flying, it’s clearly kerosene-guzzling aircraft that are the biggest cause, and tackling this has mainly fallen to airlines (we wrote about how they are doing so in our July-August issue – search “Fuelling change” at businesstraveller.com to read). But airports have their part to play, too, and while they may only contribute 5 per cent of the carbon emissions produced by aviation overall, numerous initiatives are under way to reduce this. At the same time as the ICAO met in Montréal, more than 200 members of ACI Europe, the trade association for European airports, committed to producing net zero carbon emissions by 2050. A quarter of them have already achieved that, as certified by Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA), which monitors airports worldwide (you can see a full list of “net zero” airports at airportcarbon accreditation.org).

The US Federal Aviation Administration divides emissions from airports into three categories: those from airport-owned or controlled sources, such as ground support equipment; indirect emissions from the consumption of purchased energy for electricity and heat; and indirect emissions that the airport does not control but can influence, such as passenger vehicles, waste disposal and emissions from queuing aircraft. Here are some of the ways that airports are looking to clean up these areas.

Driving change

BA driverless dolly

It’s a classic sight on the tarmac – a staff member clad in high-vis, driving a dolly laden with luggage between the terminal and aircraft. But a trial taking place at Heathrow will see British Airways’ dollies drive themselves. Using sensors and cameras, this will reduce the emissions they produce both by taking the most efficient route and removing the weight of the driver and tug to pull them (they will also be able to depart for the aircraft as soon as each one is full, speeding up the loading process).

Ground vehicles are a common target for airports. Dublin is converting 111 of them to low-emission models over the next five years, as well as switching its specialist four-wheel drives to plug-in hybrids. It is converting its bus operations to a low-emission fleet by 2022, with electric buses now on trial.

Glasgow has also introduced a fleet of electric buses to serve its long-stay car park with a free 24-hour service, saving 143 tonnes of carbon emissions per year, and is spending £200,000 on eight hybrid petrol/electric vehicles for airfield operations.

Stansted has been looking at some of the smaller things;  for example, sending its 150 tonnes of annual coffee waste to a plant in Cambridgeshire to be converted into biofuel, and planting 3,000 silver birch saplings around its site. It has replaced 5,450 airfield lights with LEDs, saving 423,808 kwh annually, the equivalent of 136 homes. It says that purchasing renewable electricity, reducing gas use and offsetting helped it to cut greenhouse gas emissions across its terminal, runway and other facilities from 25,000 tonnes of CO2e (“carbon dioxide equivalent”) to zero in 2016.

Gatwick, Manchester, Heathrow, Glasgow, Cardiff and Stansted all buy 100 per cent renewable electricity, while Luton and Birmingham are aiming to. With the considerable space generally available to them, solar is a popular energy source. London City is using its £500 million expansion to add 900 sqm of solar panels, while also replacing all airside vehicles to produce zero emissions by 2030. Heathrow’s Terminal 2 is powered entirely by 124 solar panels on its roof, an on-site biomass boiler powered by locally sourced forestry waste and purchased renewable gas and electricity. Doncaster Sheffield is spending £2 million on a solar farm on its grounds that from next year is set to generate 25 per cent of its energy, while Cardiff is developing a two-megawatt solar farm that will reduce its carbon emissions by about 860 tonnes a year.

In sunnier climes, there are even greater opportunities. Last year, San Francisco International’s Airfield Operations Facility was the first in the world to use zero net energy, generating more electricity than it consumed thanks to rooftop solar panels and sending the extra back into the grid. Dubai International installed 15,000 solar panels on its roof in 2019, creating the biggest system of its kind in the Middle East, which it says will reduce CO2 emissions at Terminal 2 by 3,243 tonnes per annum. The airport is attempting to reduce energy consumption by 30 per cent by 2030.

Finnish airport operator Finavia uses some solar grids, although it chiefly uses wind power. Johanna Kara, environmental specialist at Finavia, notes that airport solar panels present particular challenges with the direction and angle of the panels avoiding creating reflections on the glide paths, runways or in air traffic control.

Working in partnership

While numerous airports now claim to be “net zero”, none have done so without the use of carbon offset schemes to reach that point. Copenhagen, for example, has partnered with international NGO Nexus for Development in Laos to distribute more efficient and health-friendly cookers to locals. Finavia offsets 45 per cent of its CO2 emissions (one million tonnes worth) through a project in Ghana that aims to reduce the cutting down of local forests for firewood through the provision of efficient stoves, and Manchester Airports Group has funded stoves in rural India.

Gatwick works with Carbon Clear, whose projects include forest protection programmes and the supporting of renewable energy in countries including Cambodia, Kenya and Ethiopia. Heathrow has been funding the restoration of UK peatland that has been used for extraction, which it says can both offset its emissions and support biodiversity, water quality and flood protection. It points to studies showing that if all of the UK’s bogs were in favourable conditions that they could remove an additional 3 million tonnes of carbon a year.

Yet offsetting is a thorny subject. In pledging its commitment to be a net zero carbon emitter by 2033, Birmingham airport said it was its “least favourable option”, preferring instead to go for renewable power sources and reducing emissions from operations.

“Scientists, activists and concerned citizens have started to voice their concerns over how carbon offsets have been used by polluters as a free pass for inaction,” states a blog on the UN Environment website from earlier this year, while acknowledging that it only counts itself as a carbon neutral body thanks to such programmes. While emphasising that planting trees and investing in renewable energy sources is vital, it argues that it will be far from enough to counter the effects of greenhouse gases if it is perceived as a silver bullet that can allow emissions to keep rising.

Another common criticism regards the lack of oversight of offsetting schemes; while their websites tell of great works in various countries, there is no independent regulator of them. Accreditors include Gold Standard, the American Carbon Registry, Climate Action Reserve and Verified Carbon Standard, but it can be difficult for the average person to tell a reputable organisation from one that is less so.

A growing necessity 

What passengers will notice first are the kinds of small initiatives designed to change their own behaviour. Starbucks trialled a reusable cup scheme at Gatwick that saw customers borrow a free reusable cup for their hot drink and then leave it at a drop-off point to be cleaned. Luton is giving electric cars a 75 per cent discount on parking and allowing them to be charged for free on-site. London City has banned single-use plastic straws and in October launched a competition with a £10,000 prize for someone who could design a sustainable, sealable security bag for passengers’ liquids. It currently gets through more than 2 million of them a year.

Airports can also support airlines in their endeavours, whether that’s improving their efficiency on runways and in the air, using an increasing percentage of biofuels or developing electric aircraft. Heathrow has offered cheaper landing fees for cleaner aircraft and says it will support UK-based biofuel projects such as British Airways’ collaboration with Velocys and Virgin Atlantic’s with Lanzatech (see our July-August “Fuelling Change” feature). It has also offered free landing fees for a year for the first commercially viable electric flight, worth about £1 million. As airports expand, they will also add new infrastructure – such as the additional taxiways being built at London City and Manchester – that they say will cause less aircraft queuing (and therefore reduce emissions).

Of course, as airports do all of this, most of them will be growing, and there are many who will brand any efforts towards sustainability as “greenwashing”. One Extinction Rebellion campaigner described Sheffield Doncaster’s plan to install a solar farm while pursuing a doubling of passenger numbers over the next five years as akin to “trying to put a wildfire out with a water pistol”.

Still, airports and airlines will keep trying. With concern over climate change growing by the day, they have little choice.

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