How does an airport become fully sustainable? What is “carbon neutrality”? These are the key questions posed at a recent round table hosted by New Civil Engineer and Tarmac.
Aviation is undoubtedly a carbon-intensive industry, with more than 500M litres of jet fuel churned through across the planet every day. But is its image as a gas-guzzling industry obscuring some good work done by airports for the environment?
“Airports managed to reduce their emissions [carbon emissions per passenger] by 43%, compared to five years ago,” said WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff senior consultant Victor Parrilla.
“When you think about the [UK Committee on Climate Change’s] 2050 target of reducing [carbon] by 50%… I think it is possible. It’s a matter of making sure it’s not a matter of some airports doing their job and others not doing it. If every airport is doing its bit, that’s when we can reach out to aviation, which is a very key player.”
Manchester Airport Group group corporate social responsibility director Neil Robinson says a decade ago that his company was attempting to get carbon neutral, long before it resembled a savvy business move.
“We weren’t absolutely sure about it when we started, but we wanted to do it anyway,” said Robinson. “What we found when we got into it, is, we’ve got to make… a commercial case to do it. And actually the areas where we’ve made the biggest inroads into our efficiency is in being better at energy management – lighting, heating, all those sorts of unglamorous things we’ve invested a lot of capital in.”
Some airports are a long way from becoming carbon-neutral, or even on the path towards neutrality.
“Part of the problem is our regulatory environment is extremely challenging,” said Mary Kerins, the head of health and safety, sustainability and environment at Daa, which runs Dublin and Cork airports. “It gets harder, as those business cases have a much longer payback time. And it gets harder to convince your regulator that these things make sense. I think everyone is in line with doing the right thing, it’s just the pathway to that is not clear.”
Kerins said the solution lies in discussing it in terms of “resource efficiency”.
“It’s when your carbon agenda conflicts with your cost agenda. That’s when you get trouble. If you can align the agendas that’s when you get benefit.”
Mindsets are also changing at Stansted, said the airport’s head of asset optimisation Neil Thomson. Thomson said it has made “huge inroads” after recently becoming accredited for its energy management.
Smart innovation testing
“Getting smarter at testing innovation in a smaller environment, teeing up smart business decisions, alongside the energy efficiency mentality, is our main focus,” he said.
Meanwhile at the UK’s largest airport, change is happening in giant leaps and tiny steps.
“I guess we look at it in two perspectives: one, is the huge capital projects that change the game, bring things forward, they’re great. We also do a collection of small projects,” said Heathrow Airport delivery director Darren Colderwood.
“Looking at Terminals 3 and 4, which are our older terminals, we’re in there replacing assets, and while we’re in there let’s think about how we do the power, heating, water and cooling. I think there is a dependency on the gradual creep of small works and asset replacement, coupled with the big stuff.”
But what do the customers want? Do they truly care about sustainability?
“I think it’s similar to other sectors,” said Gatwick Airport sustainability manager Rachel Thompson.
“They [airport users] have a citizen and neighbourhood perspective. Stewardship, they expect that. They expect business and government to act together on these issues. And the polluter should pay rather than the consumer should pay. And they’re looking for that evidence, that it’s been internalised, change is coming, and it’s for the whole of society.”
Joined up thinking
Thompson’s personal view is that citizens also want “joined-up” thinking on climate change: “I think for us, it’s not enough to say, ‘Our direct, airport-controlled operations are carbon neutral’. People want to know that it’s a joined-up and connected approach, from getting to the airport, to the airport, and their onward journey.”
Part of the carbon equation is “embodied carbon”, the carbon that is emitted in the process of building an airport terminal.
“Let’s be clear – you don’t get back the carbon cost of building a terminal within 10 years by building a slick operating system,” said Pascall & Watson aviation director Matthew Butters. “I don’t think you even get it back in 50. You are making a huge carbon imprint on the world by building this. We’ve got to talk a little bit more closely with our clients and our contractors about the way we make things. That’s the next challenge.”
“Speaking as part of the supply chain,” said Tarmac’s national business development manager Shaun Muholland. “We’re innovating, we’re listening to the clients’ needs and helping to overcome challenges. I think early engagement is
“It might be a high value project with no room for error, but we have solutions that we can bring that are tried and tested in other sectors,” said Mulholland.
But embodied carbon is a minimal consideration, compared to operational emissions. Parrilla said, for an example, in high speed rail you might have 1% to 5% of total carbon embodied through building infrastructure – the rest comes from using it. “It [embodied carbon] is worth looking into – trying to minimise everything – but really, where the carbon comes from is from usage,” said Parrilla.
Much of where airports and airlines intend to “cut carbon” in coming decades is not through “caps” or “charges”, but through offsetting – creating forests or funding carbon reductions elsewhere in the global economy.
This international carbon offsetting market is set to bloom tenfold or more in coming years as greenhouse gas regulations clamp down on emissions.
But where to invest in offsetting? Thompson says much of the choice is dominated by energy companies, often using resources in developing countries.
“It is interesting how little choice there is to do something local, that means something to the neighbourhood. I think that is probably going to have to grow. And it is an opportunity for the infrastructure sector.”
Mulholland says Tarmac, as a significant land owner in the UK, has an understanding of working with local communities on restoration schemes. “There are ideas that start to fill your head in how we could work in partnership, and the things we could do to support with carbon offsetting, for example.”
Tarmac national business development manager, aviation sector lead Chris Wheeler said the company has more than 120 quarries supplying construction materials. Not unlike an airport, each quarry has local stakeholders and communities who think about sustainability.
“We’ve got some good examples of where we’ve worked with partners to create vibrant nature reserves and public parks, once industrial activity’s been completed,” said Wheeler. The company also measures its total carbon emissions, from rock blasting to machinery on-site.
Increasingly the industry is also looking towards building resilience into infrastructure, amid the changes to the climate due to past carbon.
“And I think what we’re finding is that’s a great way to engage the supply chain, and you start to see some progress in how they set up frameworks and innovation,” said Thompson. “With visualisation tools, it really starts to come to life.”
Mulholland said it is not only visualisation that is changing, client-supplier relationships are changing too. “The supply chain can positively affect your decisions, especially in regard to the whole-life model. If the thought is, ‘a runway has to be built the way it always has been’ then it’s always going to be that way, nothing different.”
Kerins echoed those statements, inviting the supply chain to help airports in this pursuit. “If the suppliers were able to explain from the very beginning, their credentials, the advantages, the level of sustainability, as opposed to us asking for them, if we were more upfront about that… it would provide material to us airports to explain the positive steps that we’ve taken.”
Around the table
Paul Ahsunollah Commercial manager,Tarmac
Hiro Aso Global aviation and transportation practice area leader, Gensler
Stephanie Baldwin Principal environmental planner, Mott Macdonald
Matthew Butters Aviation director, Pascall & Watson
Darren Colderwood Delivery director, Heathrow Airport
Rob Jenner Head of aviation –UK, Atkins
Mary Kerins Head of health and safety, sustainability and environment, Daa
Tim Morrison Aviation director, WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff
Shaun Mulholland National business development manager, Tarmac
Victor Parrilla Senior consultant, WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff
Neil Robinson Group CSR director, Manchester Airport Group
Rachel Thompson Sustainability manager, Gatwick Airport Limited
Neil Thomson Head of asset optimisation, Stansted Airport
Chris Wheeler National business development manager, aviation sector lead, Tarmac
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