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Top 5 carbon-busting practices for airports

The contribution of the aviation sector to the global greenhouse emissions that are driving climate change is set to increase significantly unless action is taken to slash carbon emissions. Emissions from aircraft make up the largest part of these emissions. The Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation was announced last year to work alongside ongoing improvements in engine technology and efficiency. However, it is clear that the long term goal has to be a zero carbon source of fuel for aircraft.


But what about the airports? Airports are a major source of carbon emissions, from the energy needed to power the buildings and other infrastructure, to ground transport and aircraft movements. The airport industry recognises this and is rising to the challenge of a low carbon future.

Here are the top 5 ways in which airports are driving down their carbon emissions:

1.     Get with the programme

Every organisation that wants to reduce its emissions needs to assess its carbon footprint and prepare and execute a reduction plan. For the last 10 years WSP has worked with Airports Council International to develop and manage the Airport Carbon Accreditation Programme. This provides a robust and consistent framework for the whole industry to manage its carbon emissions, as well as awarding certificates that recognise increasing levels of achievement, from mapping their carbon footprint to achieving carbon neutrality. 

The programme has been a great success having started with 20 airports in 2009 and grown to include nearly 200 airports today. However, there is still much more to do. At the COP21 summit in Paris it signed a partnership agreement with UNFCCC to drive change through the “Carbon Neutral Now” programme and earlier this year set a target to have 100 carbon neutral airports in the programme by 2030.

2.     Maximising energy efficiency

Many airports are reaping the rewards of pushing hard on the introduction of energy efficiency measures. They are delivering LED lighting replacements; introducing better metering, monitoring and targeting systems; improving the control of escalators, lighting, heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems; and introducing power factor correction.

There is still plenty more potential to be realised in this area. A recent study by WSP covering three regional UK airports identified significant carbon savings that would also reduce utility costs by up to £2 million per year. Energy efficiency measures like these can also be bundled as a package with other higher payback opportunities to deliver an overall programme of improvements that provides a suitable financial payback and rate of return. This offers an opportunity to implement some higher cost (and higher impact) opportunities or to pilot-test a new approach or technology.

3.     Using zero carbon energy

However much effort is put into energy efficiency, airports will always be large energy consumers. It is critical for airports to move to energy that has a low (and ultimately zero) carbon content. The rapid growth in renewable energy generation in the UK is enabling more and more organisations to switch to certified zero carbon electricity and this includes a number of UK airports. For example, Heathrow switched to a zero carbon electricity supply earlier this year as part of the new Heathrow 2.0 sustainability strategy.

Airports are also looking at the potential to generate their own renewable energy. Belfast Airport launched a 5MW solar farm in 2016 which is already reducing the airport’s annual carbon emissions by 2,100 tonnes and energy costs by £100,000. Arguably, the bigger challenge is the decarbonisation of heat. Gatwick Airport is innovating in this area, having become the first airport in the world to treat and dispose of Category 1 food waste from aircraft onsite. The treated material is used to feed biomass boilers on-site which now provide a source of renewable heat for the airport. 

4.     Supporting the switch to aircraft biofuels

There is no escaping the fact that the aviation sector’s carbon footprint is dominated by the emissions associated with jet fuel. Yet airports still have a critical role to play by providing the infrastructure that enables airlines to increase the biofuels that they use in a safe, reliable and cost effective manner. 

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is seeking to become one of the first airports in the world to offer a reliable supply of biofuels for its flights. This could see aircraft-related carbon emissions cut by up to 25%. The airport, in collaboration with Boeing and Alaska Airlines, commissioned WSP to undertake the feasibility study to identify the infrastructure needed for the storage and blending of aviation biofuels and its integration into the Sea-Tac fuel farm and hydrant system.

5.     Reducing embodied carbon

To date, the carbon-reduction programmes implemented by airports have focussed almost exclusively on operational emissions. It is increasingly recognised that embodied carbon, i.e. the emissions associated with the construction of buildings and infrastructure, are a very significant part of the whole-life carbon impact of an airport. Estimates vary but some researchers believe embodied carbon could already account for up to 50% of the total whole-life impact.

Reducing the embodied carbon impact will mean design solutions that minimise the amount of material used and procuring materials, such as aggregates, concrete, steel, aluminium and so on, that have lower carbon content. It is early days but Gatwick Airport is one of those leading the way having produced a baseline inventory of the embodied carbon content of the existing airport against which it can compare the impact of future changes.

Airports have come a long way in the last 10-15 years in terms of reducing their carbon impact, and they recognise there is still much to do. We have a fantastic opportunity to work together to ensure airports play their full role in the transition to a low carbon economy.  

By Simon Clouston, Technical Director - Sustainability and Energy

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