Airports must do more to be eco-friendly

As meeting profs, you probably spend more hours than you’d like in airports. They offer first impressions of the destination, good, bad and indifferent. They’re places to connect and recharge our online tethers, grab a bite and leave as soon as possible. But did you know they’re also living laboratories for our quest (and struggle) to end our carbon addiction and achieve net-zero carbon emissions to slow climate change?

A recent webinar sponsored by Reuters Events highlighted the range of activities—and challenges—of greening airports around the world. “Propelling Air Traffic into the Future: Fast-tracking Sustainability in Airports” looked at the present and future of airports from the perspective of those who spend their entire working lives thinking about how to make these transportation hubs work better and smarter for their aviation partners and for all of us who trace their endless corridors.

The aviation sector as a whole is responsible for 2.5% of all CO2 emissions. That might not seem like a lot, but until new technologies mature, jet planes will be particularly difficult to decarbonize. Coupled with industry forecasts for dramatic growth over the next 20 years, this could significantly increase its share of carbon emissions even as other industries are reducing theirs.

Webinar moderator Holly Miles, editor of International Airport Review, characterized the situation starkly: “Aviation is facing an existential crisis. That crisis is climate change. Quite simply, there is no future for aviation unless we can address this crisis.”

Read MoreTaking Ecotourism to the Next Level: Glamping in a Yurt with Only Renewable Energy

Luis Felipe de Oliveira, director general of Airports Council International, says his members represent about three percent of total aviation carbon emissions, “but it’s still our responsibility to decarbonize ourselves and be enablers” for the rest of the industry. “We need to help the whole world achieve these very ambitious targets [and] duplicate the success of some of our airports across the entire world.” His organization represents 2,000 airports—96% of all air traffic—but only some 300 have so far signed on to the goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 or before.

Successful Takeoffs

One poster child is Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), which was given a United Nations Climate Action award at COP26 in Glasgow last October as the first carbon-neutral airport in North America. DFW’s Robert Horton, its vice president of environmental sustainability, used that podium to pledge that his airport would meet its net-zero goal by 2030. To do so, measures he cites include shifting use of fuel for airport vehicles to natural gas recovered from local landfills, at a savings of $1 million a year.

“There is no future for aviation unless we address climate change.”

One of the most promising avenues for further improvements, Horton says, is digital transformation. “Science, big data and AI, they’re changing the way we see the world. We have a strategic partnership with the National Renewable Energy Lab under the Department of Energy. We’re creating a digital twin that helps us model from an integrated perspective the dynamics happening in the airport, allowing us to use machine learning to look at historical patterns and predict the future.”

Horton’s enthusiasm for big data was echoed by Tijen Cirig, senior director for airports at Honeywell Building Technologies. “Data-driven efficiencies” using “sensor technology” can now optimize lighting, heating and cooling systems by monitoring things like passenger flow through the terminals. From San Diego to Stuttgart, there’s a lot of sharing of best practices in “holistic and integrated energy management” going on, she says.

New technology is also being used to optimize efficiency on the taxiways to reduce fuel usage before takeoff and after landing.

Ambitious Goals Need You on Board

Ersin Inankul, chief digital and commercial officer at massive New Istanbul Airport (IST), warns that sea rise will be a big issue for many coastal airports. Projects he’s overseeing in Istanbul include adapting infrastructure to allow phasing in of alternative aviation fuels, including electricity, using hydrogen for heating, collecting rainwater for landscape irrigation (thereby reducing overall water usage by nearly a third), and amping up recycling in pursuit of a goal of 90% of all waste by 2030.

Read MoreEating Less Beef Won’t Fight Climate Change

With 65,000 employees at his airport, Inankul also has the big job of coaching them to support sustainability practices and goals.

As Horton puts it, “A lot of what we do in sustainability is about connecting dots. We spend a lot of time studying the airport and all the players at the airport, including passengers, and teaching them about how their actions can have a positive and negative impact upon our ability to achieve ambitious goals.”

This article appears in the July 2022 issue. You can subscribe to the magazine here.