For more than 10 years, the airport industry has embraced the global Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA) programme, which provides a certification framework for airport carbon emissions management and reduction. This voluntary initiative was co-developed by Airports Council International (ACI) Europe and WSP,5 and has become the international global standard for managing airport carbon emissions to support a climate-smart future. It has grown to include more than 390 airports, collectively located in more than 70 countries.
ACA delivers carbon-emissions improvements, as a combination of reductions and offsets, exceeding 1 million tonnes every year, and already has more than 70 airports certified as carbon neutral. In 2019, the ACI Europe Resolution committed Europe’s airports to be net-zero carbon by 2050 for emissions directly under their control. More recently, in 2020, ACA introduced two new accreditation levels, Transformation and Transition, which commit airports to an emissions-reduction trajectory consistent with keeping a global temperature increase to less than 2°C.
Aviation’s continued commitment to address emissions from aircraft—the main source of sector emissions—is well represented by CORSIA, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations agency. CORSIA, an international sector-based approach to carbon-emissions reduction and offsetting emissions from airlines, completed its pilot phase (2019 – 2021) and is now underway in its monitoring, reporting and offsetting phase.
Whilst offsetting has a very important role to play in the transition to zero-carbon aviation, ultimately aircraft will need low- and zero-carbon fuels and radically different propulsion technologies, as outlined in IATA’s Aircraft Technology Roadmap.6
Designing the Path to 2050
Whilst the recovery in global passenger traffic post-pandemic is likely to take some time, (the consensus being mid-2020s for the industry to return to the 2019 levels7), over the longer term the number of people flying is still expected to increase significantly, potentially reaching 10 billion in 2050 from 4.4 billion in 2018.8 More aircraft and more ground infrastructure will be needed to support this significant growth.
People’s propensity to fly—to explore the world, to visit family and friends—coupled with international trade means that traffic is expected to outpace the gains made in reducing aircraft emissions through efficiency measures and technological advances over the next 20 to 30 years.
In recognition of this projection, the initiatives launched by ICAO, IATA, and ACI in recent years, demonstrate that meaningful and responsible progress is achievable—through close attention to each impact point in the emissions chain. Aviation is a sector renowned for innovation and collaboration; the UK’s Sustainable Aviation9 is a world-first strategy bringing together; airports, airlines, manufacturers, air navigation service providers and other key business partners, all committed to achieving net zero by 2050.
While airports’ ground operations and construction of airport infrastructure account for a relatively small proportion of the total global greenhouse gas emissions from aviation today, they are likely to attract escalating levels of scrutiny as the aviation sector takes an all-inclusive view of emissions sources, not just those generated by aircraft. This perspective also includes the carbon impact of putting new infrastructure in place as airports expand to handle the anticipated growth in air traffic demand; the sector is already developing low-carbon steel and concrete for airport applications.10
The path to cut emissions involves a host of measures, including increased use of electric vehicles; decarbonising national power generation; a heightened focus on energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies; a wholesale shift to renewable energy sources; partnerships to support the introduction of new aircraft technologies; and more efficient use of airspace. Airports will need to take a closer look at the emissions sources they control directly and actively develop an encompassing plan to reduce them to zero. They will also need to look hard at how to work with others to reduce the indirect emissions from assets and processes that the airport does not control, but can influence—in particular, companies operating on the airport site and passengers and staff travelling to and from the airport. Decarbonising surface access is key to the whole net-zero-carbon journey.