Airports in a changing climate

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Climate change remains underestimated by many airports worldwide. More action is needed and it is needed now, believes Ken Conway, manager, aviation environment and sustainability, Airbiz.

Airports in the world’s coastal areas and small island nations are especially vulnerable. Torrential rain and flash flooding, more frequent and powerful storms, dangerous storm surges and sea-level rise threaten the business continuity of such airports. This cannot be underestimated. After 2018’s Typhoon Jebi, for instance, which flooded and temporarily closed Japan’s Kansai Airport, it took 17 days to fully restore airport operations.

Wilder weather like this is expected to continue or even increase in frequency amid rising global temperatures. This means more recurrent, significant disruption to scheduled flights, potentially costing airports, airlines and passengers billions of dollars every year. The ability of airports to fulfill an essential role in regional recovery from natural disasters is also at risk.

In recent years a growing number of investors and insurers have sought greater assurance from airports on the governance processes, reporting disclosures and actions being taken to measure, manage and respond to climate-related risks. Climate resilience and low-carbon credentials have become increasingly material to more responsible investment, credit lending and insurance underwriting decisions. This will continue in the future, along with the need to accelerate positive steps to avert the potential catastrophic and unaffordable consequences of inaction on climate change and rising sea levels.

Latest climate science, including predictions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), indicates that climate-related disasters caused by extreme weather are likely to intensify and be more frequent. According to top climate scientists, the threat of global sea-level rise of 0.5m-1m (1.6ft-3.3ft) by 2100 is highly plausible under the current trajectory of carbon emissions. Airports with inadequate sea and coastal flood defenses face a higher risk of inundation and water-related damage to infrastructure, operational disruption and travel delays.

This means the risks from sea level rise and tidal intrusion must play a role in the planning and development of all airport facilities and infrastructure as well as in day-to-day operations.

Taking urgent action
In response to the UN Paris Agreement’s goal to keep the global temperature rise to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels and the growing momentum behind airports worldwide to voluntarily commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, airport owners and operators are rising to the challenge to make airports more climate resilient. Decarbonizing aviation to limit global warming is one of the major challenges facing the industry globally. Airports located less than 10m (33ft) above sea level are most susceptible to the direct impacts from rising sea levels and more frequent and more severe cyclonic events.

In 2021, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN agency responsible for the setting of standards for global aviation, will implement CORSIA (the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) to limit post-2020 growth in emissions from international air transportation. Airlines operating international flights between participating states will have to purchase offsets for emissions exceeding average 2019-2020 baseline levels. CORSIA is a global, market-based measure to complement a broader basket of initiatives to achieve one of the global aviation industry’s climate change goals of post-2020 carbon neutral growth.

To drive the level of decarbonization required by 2050, CORSIA is expected to also catalyze action in the upscaling and commercialization of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). For many airlines, SAF is seen as the mainstay of future long-haul operations.

Airports Council International (ACI) Europe announced a landmark resolution in June 2019 committing its airport members to reach net zero by 2050 (NetZero2050) for the carbon emissions under their control. The organization’s NetZero2050 commitment aligns with the latest scientific evidence and encourages airports to pursue absolute emissions reductions.

Some airlines have also pledged net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This has been met with an upsurge in the number of passengers voluntarily opting to offset their flights. Airlines plan to achieve this pledge through continued investment in fleet renewals, cleaner energy solutions, accredited carbon offset programs, new generation aircraft technologies (electric and hybrid) and SAF. Other airlines have taken an even more ambitious step of offsetting the carbon emissions from all flights across their networks.

Airbiz is working with airports to identify those assets at most risk to inundation from rising sea waters, storm surge and fluvial flooding. This has included advising airports on the integration of climate-related risks and opportunities into corporate strategy, governance and reporting processes, sustainable design guidelines and standards, and the development of long-term airport masterplans.

What are individual airports doing?
Building resilience into airport assets and operations to adapt to the predicted effects of climate change and decarbonize is now a top priority for many airport owners, investors and insurers worldwide.

Recently, airports have been taking more active steps to address climate-related risks. This is reflected in their business strategy, masterplans and corporate responsibility agendas to address the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 13: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”.

A growing number of airports are supporting the implementation of the Financial Stability Board’s recommendations under the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). Strong governance, particularly direct board and management accountability, must drive a more robust approach to the management of climate-related risk at airports today and in future. Some forward-thinking airports at or near sea level are already using the TCFD framework to assess, manage and disclose climate change risks and opportunities.

Future-proofing airports to be more responsive and resilient to the effects of climate change is not without substantial recurring financial costs. Investment is required to fund new sea defense and flood protection schemes, stormwater infrastructure upgrades and to provide early-warning systems to better predict extreme, disruptive weather.

Both San Francisco and Hong Kong International Airports are planning to construct major new seawalls around their airport perimeters for protection against rising seas, flooding and storm surges. Singapore Changi Airport is building a new terminal at 5.5m (18ft) above sea level to protect against inundation from sea-level rise while Amsterdam Airport Schiphol operates a sophisticated water management system for flood and storm surge protection – this is particularly important given that the airport sits 4m (13ft) below sea level. Brisbane Airport had the foresight to incorporate more intense rainfall, flooding and storm surge scenarios into the design of its new runway project, which is due to open in mid-2020 at a relatively low incremental cost.

How can airports adapt?
The best way for airports to deliver on international and aviation industry commitments is through actions and investment in emissions reducing technologies and practices. This will help them tackle the threat of climate change, decarbonize and strengthen their social license to operate and grow at a manageable cost.

When looking to the future, many airports acknowledge climate change poses risks and opportunities to daily operations, long-term planning and growth. Carbon-free energy is the key to airports achieving net-zero carbon operations as they gradually reduce their dependency on fossil fuels. New technology, design innovation and sustainable construction practices will also be integral to this.

Airbiz has been developing medium- (2030) and long-term (2050) target-based strategies, low-carbon action plans and business cases for major airports across Australasia, Canada, Europe and the Middle East. These contain a series of measures to strengthen climate-related risk governance and adaptation, decarbonization efforts and the transparent disclosure of low-carbon performance at individual airports.

While efforts have commenced to make airports more climate resilient, this work must continue in earnest. The imperative for airports to be climate resilient in the transition to a low-carbon future has never been clearer.

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