Airports and climate change – a balancing act

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Aviation’s contribution to global warming is increasingly in the spotlight. With the bulk of its emissions associated with aircraft activity, however, what can airports do to make a meaningful dent in the sector’s CO2 emissions? AECOM’s Robert Spencer shares his thoughts on a sensitive subject.

Despite heightened public attention on climate change issues, demand for air travel continues and global aviation traffic is predicted to grow significantly over the next two decades. Meeting this demand will necessitate an increase in capacity and there are major airport expansion projects planned or in progress across the world.

To avoid catastrophic consequences from climate change, significant efforts to reduce emissions from all sectors, including aviation, will be required over the next 10 years. While new technologies and developments in aircraft design are likely to make the biggest contribution to reducing emissions, most are still many years from deployment. The sector must, therefore, accelerate efforts in areas that can have an impact now; largely the design and operation of new and existing airports.

In June, the Airports Council International Europe, which represents more than 500 airports across Europe, committed to net zero carbon emissions from airport operations by 2050 at the latest. With its members now working toward this goal, the built environment sector has an important role to play in helping airports develop and implement positive climate action.

Achieving net zero is an ambitious challenge that requires a rethink in the approach to designing and operating airports. Designers, architects and airport owners will need to understand the wider context and implications of their design decisions, taking into consideration the impacts that new facilities, upgrades and supporting infrastructure will have on the environment and looking at ways to optimize efficiency across all elements of a project.   

Looking to the future
Crucially, new facilities and upgrades must be designed with the future in mind. Designers need to be adept at planning for developments that are going to change the way we use airports in the future. Travel to and from airports by car contributes a sizeable portion of an airport’s total carbon footprint, indicating a real need to facilitate and encourage more journeys by public and sustainable transport. Car parking facilities required now might not, therefore, be needed quite so extensively in the future. Designing these types of buildings to be adaptive, demountable or relocatable as user requirements change will bring greater carbon efficiency and environmental benefits.

Indeed, applying a wider circular economy approach to design and operation will help lower the carbon footprint of projects. Greater collaboration is needed to fully embrace the circular economy in aviation, with designers, construction professionals and airports working together to engage with their supply chains and develop an holistic approach to design and construction elements such as materials selection, water use and waste reduction.

Given the challenge of achieving net zero, more and more airports are turning to carbon offsetting as a way to meet their climate targets. The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) is a global scheme that requires the aviation industry to buy carbon offsets to compensate for its growth in CO2 emissions. While programs under CORSIA are typically carbon reduction projects in developing countries, there is also an opportunity for airports to influence mitigation efforts closer to home. Expanding an airport’s ‘net zero zone’ through programs that improve the efficiency of houses and businesses located within an airport’s hinterland, for example, would reduce carbon emissions across a wider catchment.

The aviation sector is in a difficult position. Far-reaching carbon reduction requires radical changes to aircraft activity still years from fruition. Accelerating new aircraft technology is clearly the priority, yet there are other ways for airports to make an impact in the shorter term. Taken together, these measures will certainly go some way toward meeting the sector’s carbon emissions challenge.

Robert Spencer is director, sustainable development – environment and ground engineering, Europe, Middle East and Africa, AECOM; chairman, Major Infrastructure–Resource Optimisation Group (MI-ROG); chairman, Scottish Infrastructure Circular Economy Forum (SICEF); and chairman, Environmental Industries Commission, Natural Capital Task Force.

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