The push for action on climate change challenges different sectors of our economy in different ways.

For aviation, there are two clear priorities – the shift to sustainable aviation fuels, a transition that’s a work in progress, and second, the need to develop sustainable airports. From wealth to employment to cultural exchange, airports have always made a considerable contribution to both national economy and surrounding communities, but that role is likely to come under renewed scrutiny as sustainable development continues to reframe the opinions of governments, regulators, investors and the travelling public. So, what would make an airport ‘sustainable’ in this emerging economic landscape? 

The sustainable airport isn’t simply one that is protected from physical climate risks like extreme weather and rising sea levels. At a minimum, we believe that airports will have to tackle these five questions if they’re to become truly sustainable. 

1. How can an airport achieve net zero emissions?

In terms of overall aviation CO2 emissions, while the majority is produced from flying aircraft, it doesn’t mean airports’ ground operations can’t become more sustainable. Airports will need to comprehensively switch to renewable energy and invest in energy efficiency and energy storage to reduce carbon emissions, a process we have recently scoped out in detail for San Francisco Airport. Mapping and modelling energy use across airports’ complex estates, including optimising airfield layout, is a vital first step.

Given airports’ typical physical footprint, and with renewable infrastructure continuing to fall in cost, there are also possibilities to develop on-site energy generation from solar, wind, biomass and hydrogen sources. India’s Cochin International Airport claims to produce 100% of its energy through renewables, by siting a large solar array on airport buildings and surrounding land, an idea that other airports can emulate. 

Surface access is a major emissions factor at airports. Prioritising public transport can reduce surface access related emissions. In 2018, surface access caused 33% of Heathrow Airport’s emissions and we developed a first of its kind report which drew on airport data to identify ways to improve the speed, reliability and sustainability of travelling to and from the airport. 

To shape rapid change, ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation scheme and new government regulation (like both the UK government’s new decarbonisation plan and the European Union’s recent Green Deal proposals), are beginning to set stringent targets for reductions in waste and embodied carbon, and levels of renewable energy procurement. Governments can also establish a lifecycle cost assessment for airport projects, so operators understand how to achieve net zero on existing as well as new buildings. Net zero is possible, but must be approached in an integrated way, from multiple operational angles. 

2. Can we design airports to become more physically sustainable?

As in other resource heavy infrastructure, airports could shift to a 360-degree lifecycle approach to the design, construction and operation of new and existing physical assets. This would enable them to embody a circular economy approach to their built assets, adopting materials passports and other measures to enable the reuse of materials when facilities reach their end of life, lowering lifetime emissions and retaining the value of building products and assemblies as a result. In our work with one leading airport, our assessments were able to identify 8,500m2 of existing concrete pavement that could be retained and reused from upgrade works. It’s a matter of adopting a different mindset and anticipating re-use wherever practical. 

In effect, an airport is a complex ecosystem of environments, services, vehicles and supporting systems, which all consume a mix of energy and resources. Optimisation requires taking a system-wide approach, by reducing waste, improving recycling, using on-site waste-to-energy and anaerobic digestion systems to improve performance, and committing to zero-waste-to-landfill commitments. 

3. How do airports grow without damaging nature and biodiversity?

There is likely to be growing expectation that airports commit to ‘green managed growth’ – the concept of setting limits to environmental impacts while continuing to grow economically. It would mean agreeing mutually acceptable methods of monitoring and enforcement regarding issues like noise, carbon emissions, surface access impacts, air quality and so on –  but would also represent a spur to innovation. 

To address biodiversity impacts, there are many great examples of airports already adopting practices like green roofs and expanded planting within their estates in ways that are compatible with aviation safety. These are effective but controlled ways of encouraging surrounding nature in their immediate environs. Local environmental off-setting could achieve other national goals too. Instead of simply off-setting by planting forests in other areas or regions, airports could invest in the domestic boiler replacement with heat pumps in the local community, helping to accelerate the decarbonisation of home heating and bolstering their status as socially responsible businesses.

4. How can airports become healthier for employees, communities and users?

From the quality of the passenger experience to local air quality and noise levels, airports can do more to improve the health and wellbeing impacts they produce. Policies to encourage the use of electric vehicles within their estates and ground power to aircraft can bring down air pollution, supporting local air quality goals. Reductions in light pollution and adoption of indoor air quality monitoring, limiting the use of toxic substances, introduction of biophilic design, as well as measures to reduce the risks of creating heat islands, would also all strengthen an airport’s sustainability credentials. 

Becoming more sustainable in terms of health and wellbeing means taking a fundamentally human-centred design approach to aviation infrastructure, operations and environments. We are collaborating with the EU Aviation Wellbeing Committee to challenge the industry to design for the needs of all those who interact with it.  

5. How can airports play a bigger role in the local community?

Airports are major employers, but the sustainable airport can play a larger role in the community than merely providing jobs. As focus points for a range of technical, engineering and service skills, they have an opportunity to become a hub for local skills, offering apprenticeships, and reaching out to communities that lack traditional educational advantages.

This, more active, posture would be a chance to demonstrate leadership on a series of interconnected urban issues. Airports are typically located in the outer reaches of urban areas, providing a potentially powerful set of connections in areas of often less-wealthy populations. Luton Airport, north of London, is focusing on green aviation technology research and development, becoming a connector between universities and engineering businesses in the area. For other airports, there’s clear potential to develop low-emission agriculture on their surrounding land, helping the food industry to reduce ‘food miles’ and advance its own sustainability agenda. The possibilities are considerable, varied and local.

Sustainability: a license to operate?

The development of sustainable aviation fuels, including biofuels, hydrogen, and electric-powered aircraft is well underway, but will take time. The sustainable airport is something we can achieve right now. Airports have a fantastic opportunity to lead the sustainability agenda, pioneer progressive economic measures and practices, and ensure that the industry is seen as an active participant in the shift to a net zero economy. Ultimately, once the world’s airports are more vocal about their sustainability commitments, and making progress on a path to net zero, they will strengthen their social license to operate. This won’t just be to the benefit of the industry, but will strengthen the cities and communities it serves.