Destination net zero

SNC-Lavalin and Engineering Net Zero director, Isabelle Smith, shares insight on the challenges ahead and explains why data-driven decisions will be fundamental in achieving the industry’s green ambitions.

The long, steady journey to reduce carbon emissions is becoming urgent. Against the unrelenting pressure of a changing, unpredictable climate, the task is enormous.

Aviation accounts for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, but its overall contribution to climate change is significantly higher when other non-CO2 gases, contrails and particulates are considered. Aviation emissions are also hard to abate, due to the hIgh cost and limited maturity of decarbonisation measures and technology.

Aviation infrastructure also faces a physical climate risk, with 25% of the world’s busiest airports all situated less than 10 metres above sea level.

This means that if we want to deliver sustainability in aviation, we will need to use assets more efficiently, more innovatively, and more collaboratively. We also need credible plans to retrofit and redesign this extensive asset base, changing behaviours and integrating new technologies.

As net zero commitments draw closer each year, we need to start making intelligent investment decisions now in order to get programmes in place that will drive sustainability in the long run.

Sustainable aviation in terms of airports is a particular challenge. Airports are highly operational clusters of buildings, underpinned and interconnected by complex utilities infrastructure.

As quasi mini-cities, airports resemble industrial ecosystems more than a standard estate portfolio. They are the nexus of diverse aviation supply chains, fulfilling a critical, strategic role in the entire transport sector.

And although airports contribute only a small share of aviation emissions, they stand at the vanguard of the transition, because decarbonising aircraft emissions is not possible without the right infrastructure and systems in place on the ground.

What airports do, and when they do it, matters a great deal. Without a programme of broad, forward-thinking investment, the rest of aviation will not be able to decarbonise.

Onwards and upwards

Building a long-term strategy for decarbonisation is difficult enough, let alone actually deploying a programme of interventions at scale. While energy reduction typically has a quick return on investment (being measurable and quantifiable over the short-term), decarbonising means going beyond cutting down on power.

Strategic leadership and commercial innovation are crucial. Writing, and acting upon, the commercial case for change will only be successful if interwoven with transparent, informed decision-making and a clear reporting process. Without an improved line of sight to the performance of assets, rooted in an adaptive framework for interventions and investment, decision-making will be neither clear nor confident.

Decarbonisation of airports also demands a holistic view that connects the boardroom to the furthest end of the supply chain. Capturing and reducing emissions at scale will require an intricate, multi-disciplinary understanding of the processes that define complex organisations, engaging stakeholders and driving strategic intent into the wider supply chain.

It will be vital to create new structures for collaboration and co-ordination. And it is airports that are in a privileged position to pave the way here, due to their economic weight, scope for innovation, and unique ability to lead collaboration across stakeholders.

Strategic partnerships with net zero delivery partners are also becoming an increasingly important element of decarbonisation. Setting up joint ownership of outcomes and deliverables can transform the planning process by embedding sustainability and streamlining the path to actually delivering it.

Adapting to a changing world

In a changing regulatory and energy landscape, flexibility is also fundamental. As the price of electricity fluctuates, interest rates rise or new green investment funds appear, powerful positive and negative effects will alter the commercial viability of long-term decarbonisation.

That’s another reason why data-driven decisions are key. By scenario modelling macro-economic changes, and transparently demonstrating the sensitivity of a given roadmap, decision making is more informed – improving planning and resilience and mitigating risk.

Roadmaps should be built upon high-quality data, and quickly adapt to environmental and economic changes. In an uncertain world, it’s all the more important that business cases are agile and reactive.

We can start employing approaches that ascertain and deliver more sustainable value for money, alongside working with supply chains to realise far-ranging benefits.

By illuminating the most impactful, valuable and cost-effective choices, and revealing the long-term risk of others, it’s possible to change direction by small turns, with targeted decision-making that both improves performance now and lays the foundation for future decarbonisation.

Airport opportunity

The airport’s importance to the energy system – and its future – is significant. Take Keflavik Airport, in Iceland, where Atkins-SNC Lavalin recently modelled an airport-wide energy transition to hydrogen.

The report concluded that, to support that transition, all of Iceland’s energy generation and distribution would need to massively increase. And as emerging technologies mature, airports will be the critical enabler of airlines’ ability to use fuel sources like SAF (which IATA estimate could make up around 65% of the emissions reduction needed by 2050) at scale. All of which makes airports a potent driver of energy transformation.

That’s why we increasingly expect airports to take on the net zero challenge internally, creating micro-grids and future-proofing their own utilities infrastructure, which may include transforming business models and becoming energy providers in their own right.

Moreover, because airports are well integrated into local economies, and can act as an influential decision-making entity, they’re perfectly placed to work with governments, tapping into green funding and amplifying the effects of sustainability down through their diverse supply chains. If airports lead the way, they have the opportunity to cascade change throughout aviation.

Final call

Delivering net zero in a financially sustainable way is difficult. Technology alone is not a silver bullet, which is why we recently launched DecarbonomicsTM Airports, a service fully integrated with multi-disciplinary expertise.

‘Decarbonomics Airports’ is an emergent solution based on our existing Decarbonomics building platform. It combines multi-disciplinary expertise with data science and digital technology, to help complex environments, like airports, identify where and how to reduce carbon – and confidently navigate towards sustainability.

As more data is collected, a more accurate picture of an airports emissions starts to emerge, whether that’s from inside the terminal building or the ground fleet.

Once you have benchmarks, a tailored roadmap can be created to start reducing emissions as efficiently as possible. That roadmap is also completely agile to the changing macro-economics that always exist in long term delivery programmes.

However, data-driven delivery must coexist with enhanced human decision-making and problem solving. Without a clear line of sight into the impact of commercial decisions, and justification for taking them, transformation will be filled with uncertainty and risk.

The road to net zero is no doubt a huge challenge, but also presents an exciting catalyst for change and transformation for airports and the wider aviation sector.

If we can proactively identify and navigate the risks and opportunities, by applying data insights, we can look forward with optimism to a low-carbon future of travel.

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