Three steps to net zero

Focusing on three key issues will help the aviation industry reduce carbon emissions, writes Landrum & Brown’s sustainable airports specialist, Sara Christen.

For anyone involved in the aviation industry or running an airport today, a major talking point is the sector’s contribution to global warming, and how we can cut carbon emissions and improve our overall sustainability.

The 2021 landmark announcement by ACI of a long-term goal of Net Zero Carbon by 2050, along with last year’s announcement by IATA, saw global airports and airlines commit to reaching net zero by 2050.While this is a positive step, there is more to do.

Often the argument that is loudest is that reducing carbon emissions in aviation is impossible. This is based on historical perceptions of the industry as a heavy polluter which contributes around 2% of global carbon emissions. As a result of innovative technology and a sustainable focus on new solutions, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

At Landrum & Brown, we have been tracking the energy use per passenger (EUP) at major airports around the world. EUP is a comparison of total annual energy use at airports to the total number of annual passengers. Before the pandemic hit, our data showed positive progress.

Despite significant airport growth in the intervening period and record passenger traffic globally in 2019, EUP actually declined by 20%.

So how was this possible? Airports took advantage of low-hanging fruit to decrease their carbon emissions – from updating lighting to replacing mechanical systems.

Despite this progress, it’s undeniable that the pandemic has had an impact on this trajectory. With airports remaining open and operating, and passenger numbers reaching record lows during the pandemic, data shows that EUP has increased by 8% to 9% as a result.

As the industry continues to recover from the pandemic, it might sound like a tall order to reverse this trend and return to progressing efforts to cut emissions, particularly when most airports have addressed the ‘easy’ options, but it is critical that we are not deterred.

In the coming months and years, airports must make major decisions around implementation to achieve targets. This will not always be straightforward, but there is plenty of encouragement there.

Already, many airports are working with planning firms like Landrum & Brown to develop robust sustainability strategies, outline ambitious but achievable emissions goals, and design implementation plans which include the adoption of new, emerging solutions.

These airports are guided by the belief that they can achieve net zero and contribute to a more sustainable future for our industry and the planet. How each airport does this will be different, but we see there being three key areas to focus on.

Firstly, it will be important for airports to work out how to reduce energy use per passenger. There are other metrics that can be considered, but this is the best for establishing a ‘common denominator’ among commercial service airports in tracking and benchmarking energy use.

EUP takes the wildly varying ages, sizes, and number of facilities among airports out of the equation. It’s also important because it allows for airports to grow and expand as they should without ‘penalising’ them for using more total energy.

As a next step, airports need to consider how they will tackle the ‘high-hanging fruit’ to improve overall energy efficiency, such as increased use and scale of renewables like solar, microgrids, and geothermal energy sources.

Secondly, airports across the globe must prepare for how they are going to adopt sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), hydrogen and other future fuels that may soon come to market.

Despite supply chain issues and a current lack of infrastructure investment, which is stopping SAF from being as popular as Jet-A worldwide, the change could happen much sooner. We only have to look at the fanfare associated with Virgin Atlantic’s transatlantic flight in November on 100% sustainable fuel to see the growing momentum.

What will be interesting to observe in the coming years is the relationship between airlines and airports over how the infrastructure for SAF-powered aircraft is funded.

To meet sustainability targets, we cannot afford to let such debates hold up proceedings. Airports should start working now with tenants and stakeholders to determine how the transition from traditional aircraft fuel needs to be structured and implemented.

Finally – and the most challenging aspect – is having a clear plan for reducing Scope 3 emissions. These are greenhouse gas emissions that are a result of tenant, passenger, and visitor activities and operations at an airport – things that are beyond the airport’s direct control. This includes airline operations of aircraft and ground support equipment, other tenants, such as rental car companies, and taxi and passenger vehicles.

Although an airport has control of Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions and can easily plan for reductions, they are typically a small percentage of an airport’s overall emissions. Here lies the challenge. Because Scope 3 emissions typically make up the largest percentage of an airport’s carbon footprint, reduction of these will have the strongest impact on reducing an airport’s impact on the environment.

It isn’t an easy fix and requires significant stakeholder engagement and planning. There are a few airports in the world that are excelling at this, like Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), San Diego International Airport (SAN) and Vancouver International Airport (YVR). But there is still opportunity to establish a unified approach to overcoming it.

In recent years, we are especially proud of our work with Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) on its sustainability journey.

Arguably, O’Hare has been an industry leader for sustainability since 2003. It led the way with the first sustainable design and construction guidance and the first project rating system for an airport in the US. Its pioneering sustainability initiatives also includes using grazing herds of goats and sheep instead of pesticides to manage vegetation, including tall grass, on 16 acres of land to the west of airfield. While a grazing herd won’t be appropriate for every airport, it shows the type of out-of-the-box thinking needed for tomorrow.

As the Chicago Department of Aviation moves into the future with its recently announced Terminal Area Plan (TAP) and O’Hare 21 Program, which is Chicago’s vision for a modern airport that will be an efficient and accessible international gateway, sustainability will continue to be a priority throughout both the design and construction processes, as well as operations and maintenance.

Another leader in this space is the Abu Dhabi Airport Company (ADAC), which underwent sustainability planning for all five of its airports. We were briefed to perform a comprehensive review, validation and refinement of the Airport Master Plan for Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH). This included advanced planning for airfield, terminal, support facilities, utilities and landside masterplans.

The sustainability goals of ADAC were developed for all aspects of administration, operations, maintenance, planning, design and construction to be performed to the highest and best standards of sustainability practices. This programme established metric performance standards tied to activity levels, with goals that were designed to be reinforced through incentives for staff, tenants, contractors, and the travelling public.

Seeing first-hand the entire planning process through to the design and construction of so many leading airports, I’m confident that necessary progress is being achieved.

COP28 provided an opportunity to take stock on the real-world aviation industry examples that have worked and what hasn’t, and why, regarding airport operational improvements, energy transition for airports and aircraft, and innovative technologies overall.

Progress has been made but without collaboration between private businesses and the aviation industry, we won’t reach our potential. We all need to act now.


About the author

Sara Christen is the Chicago based associate vice president of Landrum & Brown, which is part of the Sidara Company (formerly the Dar Group).

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