Can Airports Be Green?

1 November 2010 (Last Updated November 1st, 2010 18:30)

As part of a carbon-intensive industry, can airports ever be classed as eco-friendly? In Europe, the airport carbon accreditation scheme aims to drive industry sustainability forward. Chris Lo investigates.

When it comes to the environment, the air travel industry remains at a troubling impasse. Despite the high carbon output of mass commercial flights, travelling by plane is still the only realistic option for passengers needing to reach distant destinations quickly. Air freight transport is the lynchpin of global logistics networks, facilitating the flow of imports and exports around the world. To many observers, the environmental damage caused by air travel is matched only by the inevitability of its use.

However, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) presents some encouraging statistics. According to the organisation, airlines have improved fuel efficiency and CO2 performance by 14% over the last ten years. IATA director general and CEO Giovanni Bisignani has set ambitious environmental aims for the industry, including carbon neutral growth, an 80% reduction in nitrogen oxide levels around airports by 2020, and even the production of a zero-emissions aircraft within 50 years.

Whether or not IATA manages to achieve its lofty goals for airlines, one area in which airport operators can make a solid positive impact on the industry's environmental performance is in the design and organisation of airports and the surrounding infrastructure.

Airport carbon accreditation

The central environmental issue for airports is the reduction of carbon emissions. Although airports themselves only make up a small part of the aviation industry's total impact (5%, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), airports can still reduce emissions in the short term while the technology and alternative fuels for cleaner aviation are developed.

"Set up in 2009, the airport carbon accreditation scheme awards certification in four ascending levels."

An important development for the measurement of airport carbon performance is ACI Europe's (the European wing of Airports Council International) airport carbon accreditation scheme. Set up in 2009, a year after the organisation issued a resolution to reduce the carbon emission of European member airports, the scheme awards accreditation in four ascending levels. From least to most advanced, the levels are mapping, reduction, optimisation and neutrality.

Achieving accreditation for "mapping" simply requires an airport to measure its carbon performance, identify sources of emissions and compile the information in an independently verified report.

Fulfilling the criteria for the "reduction" award is a matter of proving to inspectors that airport management is putting carbon management procedures into place, and that carbon reduction goals have been met. The "optimisation" award recognises airports that have engaged and reduced emissions from third-parties operating out of the site, including airlines, ground handling groups and catering companies. Finally, airports that have launched environmental projects to offset remaining carbon emissions are awarded the rare "neutrality" accreditation.

Since the establishment of the scheme in June 2009, airports have made significant carbon efficiency improvements to gain accreditation. At a ceremony presenting Brussels Airport with a reduction accreditation on 26 October 2010, European commissioner for transport Siim Kallas praised the scheme for the successes achieved so far. "With over 550,000t of CO2 reductions to date, I believe that airport carbon accreditation is playing a crucial role in helping move European aviation onto a more sustainable footing," he said.

The elimination of 550,000t of emissions is an impressive feat to accomplish in just over a year, and as the roster of accredited airports grows, this number will only rise. 23 airports are currently accredited in some from by the scheme, including major international hubs like London Heathrow, which achieved an optimisation award on 11 October 2010. This list accounts for around a third of European passenger traffic, and it will be interesting to see how far this percentage can rise in the coming months and years.

"The environmental damage caused by air travel is matched only by the inevitability of its use."

A model of sustainability: Stockholm Arlanda Airport

Run by state-owned Swedish airport operator Swedavia, Stockholm-Arlanda Airport is one of the few European airports to receive the coveted 'neutrality' accreditation, offsetting all outstanding carbon emissions. The airport's efforts prompted Christian Eizinger, a researcher for the Central European Institute of Technology, to describe the airport as "probably the hands-down winner in actively battling global warming" to a New York Times reporter last year.

Arlanda has made use of a variety of measures to reduce carbon emissions in the first instance. The airport has halved its net CO2 emissions between 2006 and 2010, putting into place schemes like biogas-fuelled buses to provide service to terminals from the local area. As more than 50% of the hub's emissions stems from ground transport to and from terminal buildings, Arlanda is also benefiting from impressive state investment to improve the capacity and efficiency of public transport links like high-speed rail and buses.

Perhaps the most advanced method Stockholm-Arlanda is using to save energy and offset carbon emissions is its aquifer, which was recently placed into service. The aquifer is a groundwater reservoir located close to the airport site which pumps cold water to the airport buildings to provide natural cooling. Warm water will be diverted from the airport building to the aquifer where it will be stored until winter. When the weather turns cold, the reservoir of warm water can be used to melt the snow in aircraft parking stands and provide warm ventilation to terminal buildings.

The airport has announced that the aquifer will save 4GWh of electricity consumption and 15GWh of heating consumption. The total saving of 19GW is equivalent to the consumption of 2,000 family homes.

"The central environmental issue for airports is the reduction of carbon emissions."

Stockholm-Arlanda has also set itself ambitious goals for the near future. One of these targets concerns aircraft approaches. By descending to the runway continuously rather than in stages or circling, planes can glide down with engines idled, resulting in less noise pollution and lower emissions. The challenge of this technique is logistical rather than technological, as landing times must be set much earlier in the flight plan. The airport has achieved 10,000 "green" approaches since 2006 and aims to have 80% of incoming flights following this eco-friendly strategy by 2012.

The example set by Stockholm-Arlanda Airport should fix a standard for the proactive approach to the environment in the aviation industry. Swedavia's eco-friendly terminals prove that being part of a carbon-intensive industry does not have to preclude environmental awareness at airports. With schemes like ACI Europe's airport carbon accreditation pushing the industry further forward in the pursuit of sustainability, passengers may yet see the day when they can board a plane without harbouring a vague sense of guilt.