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Playing the long game


Sustainable design must be high on the agenda of the world’s airports post COVID-19 to enable the industry to build back better, writes Roger Swinbourne, Arup’s sustainability leader for the Australasia region.

Sustainability is a concept that aims to optimise outcomes for human and natural environments, both now and with a view to the long-term future.

The ultimate goal of sustainable policies and practices is to provide a framework to guide human activity so that societies and economies can reach their greatest potential in the present without compromising future generations’ ability to do the same.

Sustainability affects every level of humanity, from local neighbourhoods to the global community as a whole.

It is also important to recognise that sustainability is a systems problem and, to an extent, a subjective term. Actions and outcomes can be considered more or less sustainable than others. Put simply, it is not a yes-or-no answer or a simple technical solution.

The decision-making process is therefore vital to the long-term implementation of sustainable strategies, policies and practices. All decisions must consider the level at which they operate, the timeframe involved and the long-term impacts of each decision.

Essentially, progress is subject to not only current decision making but all future decisions being directed towards a better long-term future.

The emerging trends outlined below will impact how airports are designed and operate in the future. Consideration of these factors in the planning and design of airports will be significantly more cost-efficient than a deep retrofit at a later date.

Furthermore, designing an airport that is appropriately future-proofed and considered best-in-class will both mitigate climate related risks and enable a favourable assessment from a prospective buyer or regulator in the future.

The following points set out some of the opportunities to change business as usual that may enable the industry to bounce back better following the current challenges.

Future resource trends

Supply and demand of energy, water and materials are shifting with the impact of dynamic technology, market and political change.

This changing risk and cost dynamic create opportunities to proactively realise the benefits, and reduce risk, for acting early to reduce demand and secure supply or alternative approaches (PV/renewables). This will impact both the asset considerations as well as the aviation sector over the coming years, for example:

  • With the global expansion of Airport Carbon Accreditation, the transition to net zero-carbon is becoming a priority for more and more airports. We are already seeing tangible results from this, with many airports already achieving carbon neutrality (airport operations) in spite of increased passenger numbers and air traffic movements.
  • Integrated resource management (IRM) is becoming more commonly employed in airport design. IRM is a planning process that assembles all resource groups that typically work separately so that all available resources can be factored to enable the delivery of long-term sustainable outcomes.
  • Mobility in airports is changing. Large numbers of airports are in the process of replacing diesel-powered shuttle trains and buses with electric ones, also there is machine learning being introduced to the operations to drive down waste and create more optimal operations.
  • Biometric technology is becoming increasingly popular. Integrated in personal devices, check-in areas, security control and at the boarding gates, biometrics is streamlining the flow of people through airports while reducing environmental footprints.

Global finance

Funds applying an ESG (environmental, social and governance) lens to investments have significantly increased over the last four years. Almost half of all professionally managed money in Australia is now classed as responsible investment (one trillion dollars) which means they factor in the ESG risk and opportunity as material value in investment decisions.

They are also realising higher returns on ESG-led investing, meaning that it is likely to become more embedded. Effective consideration of more sustainable outcomes for new airport infrastructure will open up new financing opportunities for the capital investments required and will become material factors in future asset valuations.

Future asset value and risk

Sustainability takes a medium and long-term view to social, environmental and economic futures in seeking to understand opportunity and risk. It is increasingly being considered in line with future asset value (and significantly reduced impact on the environment) rather than the more traditional capital expenditure/operational expenditure (Capex/Opex) approach.

Whole of life value

The assumption that sustainability costs more has changed. Early action seeks to drive design efficiency and productivity with a focus on outcome and impact rather than input and output.

By moving to circular economy practices, there is a focus on maintaining highest and best use of materials for as long as possible.

Social and environmental licence

The aviation industry is increasingly challenged and scrutinised around its responsibility and action towards the future. That responsibility drives the sector towards greater future responsibility and integrity in delivering environmental and social value, including within and beyond the function of the industry.

The sector is also moving towards healing damage for which it has previously been responsible, such as soil and ground water contamination (PFAS), carbon emissions, and harm to local ecosystems. As a result, there is an increased commitment to circular principles.

For example, airports are being increasingly incorporated into community-focused sustainable development. Sustainable community initiatives are typically driven by governments and non-profit organisations but also involve community members. Their core aim is to ensure that adequate resources are available for future generations while minimising waste and preventing pollution.

THE UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The air transport industry has a direct or indirect impact on at least 15 of the United Nations’ 17 SDGs. Above the rating systems currently proposed in new airport infrastructure sustainability plans, the SDGs offer a more holistic framework with which to plan longer-term outcomes.

An effective whole of life view of an airport’s sustainability and resilience starts during the design process. It can demonstrate that an approach meets future responsibilities, captures possible opportunities and meets the financial efficiency requirements of the airport at capital and operational stages.

It should also be appreciated that the construction stage of airport planning will always be subject to future regulatory and design standards along with market perception. This means that current design practices need to carefully consider the short, medium and long-term regulatory, economic and financial environment of the project and proactively realise value in the current design.

There is much to be said for airports taking a strategic approach to delivering more sustainable and resilient assets that will consider a whole of life value approach and identify appropriate implementation actions at the right stage of the development to either include, or not preclude, desired outcomes.

This is critical to enabling the industry to meet the social, economic and environmental needs of society, both now and in the future.

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