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Leonie Dobbie, aviation consultancy company WSP’s strategic aviation advisor, considers the benefits of embedding sustainability action into airport decision-making.

From the 1991 Earth Summit in Rio to the 2015 Paris Agreement, policymakers have attempted 
to come to grips with the science and political-economic implications of climate change.

Achieving the Paris Agreement goals requires that we hold the increase in global average temperature to below 
2ºC above pre-industrial levels (and that we pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5ºC). To do 
so, net emissions must ultimately be reduced to zero.

Current levels of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions suggest a possible rise in temperature to above 3ºC this century, thus exceeding the goals envisioned by the Paris Agreement.

Physical manifestations of climate change through extreme weather events (such as flooding, hurricanes and wildfires) are more commonplace. Representing about 2.5% of global GHG emissions, aviation is on course to become responsible for 20% or more of global emissions – a growth trajectory incompatible with targets to reduce GHG emissions.

In this scenario, it would be a moot point whether aviation can abate its GHG emissions; this reality would challenge aviation’s role in the global economy and our general way of life.

In a world becoming carbon-constrained and climate-damaged, airports have many hurdles to overcome before they can fully embed sustainability into a low/zero carbon future.

Whilst sustainability as a goal is more material to the airport industry today than say a decade ago, airports are not routinely adopting sustainability as their bottom-line core conviction.

Presently, airport sustainability action is not necessarily embedded into strategic decision-making. As ACI World director general, Angela Gittens, has pertinently observed: “We must renew our dedication to sustainability”.

Airports were amongst the first aviation sectors to put in place the only voluntary global programme for the decarbonisation of airport operations, Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA).

This programme provides a progressive path towards better carbon management. Asia-Pacific airports were early adopters 
of the programme, signing up in 2011, and continue to progress climate action in the region.

Currently, seven airports in the region have a public environmental policy and have initiated carbon mapping action; 21 have actively set carbon emissions reduction targets and actively reduced the CO2 emissions under their operational control; 22 airports have reduced their CO2 emissions and engaged their airport partners to do so; and six have attained the most advanced programme level by reducing their emissions as much as possible and offsetting their residual emissions through certified offsets.

These 56 airports account for around 40% of Asia-Pacific’s passenger traffic and 20% of all accredited airports in the programme.

Without doubt, Airport Carbon Accreditation has been hugely successful in reducing airports’ historical CO2 emissions. In the last reporting year (2018-2019), the then 54 accredited airports in Asia-Pacific reduced their Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 15,164 tonnes.

Per-passenger emissions declined to 2.51 kilogrammes of CO2 compared to the three-year rolling average, which represents the standard baseline of the programme to ensure unbiased assessments.


Globally, the 274 airports then in the programme achieved a reduction of 322,297 tonnes of CO2 – equivalent to the amount of CO2 absorbed by planting seven and a half million trees in 10 years.

But if airport actions are to be recognised as fully sustainable, and deliver net zero, they must now undertake the monumental task of addressing their future GHG emissions.

The solutions identified and deployed so far do not go far enough or fast 
enough to deliver on this goal. To do so, airports need:

  • Every single affordable low carbon/clean energy technology that is possible to use – because growth is not being offset by technological means or energy efficiencies.
  • To reduce the carbon impact of putting new buildings and infrastructure in place – because the carbon embodied in construction and renovation is a highly significant part of the carbon impact of an airport and can be reduced.
  • A broader uptake of all airport emission sources and potential abatement strategies – not merely operational ones – because airports cannot be disassociated from the carbon impact of aircraft emissions in flight. This means reducing emissions beyond their direct control.
  • Responsible Investment which reflects the United Nations Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) principles – because the role of financial markets and institutional investors is becoming critical to the achievement of airport sustainability goals.
  • Sustainable business and management models in which sustainability is intrinsically connected to other airport goals – because public acceptance of aviation is not always a given.
  • Clear long-term GHG emissions reduction targets and goals and associated policies – because the aviation industry needs 
to speak with one voice and deliver on its commitments.

Airport sustainability actions encompass a broad spectrum of activity. ACI Europe’s airports have issued a ‘Sustainability Strategy for Airports’ based on the UN Sustainability Goals.

This strategy is said to “equip airports with an industry-wide framework and guidance, enabling them to embed sustainability at the core of their business strategy”.

In parallel, ACI Europe with its ‘NetZero2050’ commitment has aligned its policies to the science of climate change. Some 211 European airports have signed up to this goal, some pledging earlier timescales.

ACI Asia-Pacific have an annual ‘Green Airports Recognition’ initiative on different themes, the 2019 edition covering ‘green airport infrastructure’. In line with the top priorities of its airports, the region’s airports are encouraged to focus on waste management and energy management.

At the time of writing in early March 2020, there were 299 accredited airports across the globe in ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation programme – 149 in Europe, 56 in Asia-Pacific, 47 in North America, 33 in Latin America, and 14 in Africa. Who will be the 300th?


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