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Eliminating emissions through ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation programme


WSP’s aviation strategy and policy advisor and programme administrator of ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation programme, Leonie Dobbie, updates us on the take up, development and evolution of the global initiative.

Air travel has become more democratic, morphing towards a one size fits all at costs which are not sustainable, however defined.

Until the outbreak of COVID-19, air travel was one of the fastest growing sectors in the world bringing enhanced connectivity, economic growth and social welfare to many.

But the price for meeting the demand from a world that was eager to fly was an unacceptable growth in carbon emissions coupled with calls for the decarbonisation of air travel.

COVID-19 has reduced the number of passengers at the world’s airports by 10.2 billion (ACI World). With the ongoing lifting of many health measures and the relaxation of travel restrictions, demand for air travel is increasing again, albeit unevenly in different world markets.

But the scenario has changed. As Willie Walsh, director general of IATA, has pertinently observed, “The post COVID-19 reconnect will be on a clear path towards net zero”.

This means that if we want to limit global warming to below 1.5°C, we need to attain net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest, between now and then, and some 21.2 gigatons of carbon need to be abated by aviation, according to IATA calculations.

By definition, net zero implies reducing absolute CO2 emissions from aviation to the furthest extent possible and reducing any remaining emissions that cannot be eliminated at source through solutions such as carbon capture and storage. Measures which are largely untried in aviation.

Here we are talking ‘climate neutrality’, not merely ‘carbon neutrality’.

Airports have a long history of engagement in climate action. Indeed, ACI EUROPE’s Airport Carbon Accreditation programme administered by WSP has, since 2009, been encouraging airports to voluntarily reduce GHG Scope 1 and 2 emissions under their control as well as selected Scope 3 emissions from their operational activities.

To date, some 412 ACI member airports in every ACI region are airport carbon accredited at one of the six levels of the programme. Two new programmes levels reflecting net zero goals are now under development.

ACI EUROPE’s comprehensive sustainability strategy encompasses a number of specific climate targets, including a commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions under their control at the latest by 2050.

As of April 2022, 246 European airports have signed ACI EUROPE’s net zero pledge, of which 94 have set 2030 as a target date for achieving the goal. Ten airports in the Swedavia airport group have already reached net zero carbon emissions for their operations.

Airports therefore are a key enabler of industry wide efforts to stabilise and reduce carbon emissions.

Industry wide, the strategy to reach net zero is to abate as much CO2 as possible through sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) use, new aircraft technology, more efficient airport operations and infrastructure, and by developing new zero emissions sources such as electric and hydrogen power.

An estimated 1.8 gigatons of carbon will need to be abated in 2050. It is thought that 65% of this would come from SAF. New propulsion technology such as hydrogen would account for a further 13%, with efficiency improvements making up a further 3%. Carbon capture and storage around 11 % and offsetting 8%.

Much needs to happen to reach net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier. The first step is to move from a ‘business as usual’ scenario by developing clear cut solutions to decarbonise aviation. The second is implementation, and the third is communicating what industry is doing and has achieved.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has called for “urgent and drastic action to limit global warming” in line with the Paris Agreement, including making “unprecedented and deep emissions reductions” in all sectors. If this is accomplished, global CO2 emissions could decline by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

Airports are playing their part in this global effort. Through ACA, two new accreditation levels (Level 4/4+) have been adopted reflecting Paris Agreement pathways. As of September 2022, 43 airports had become accredited at these levels.

Depending on the success of any decarbonisation policies and actions, the future of air travel could look very different by 2030 or 2050. A key consideration is whether all stakeholders – including governments – can escalate and speed up the options to keep flying. SAF, technology, fuel and other operational efficiencies or offsetting will all play a part.

But any ‘future’ that would involve continued growth in air travel, including the expansion of airport capacity to meet such growth, and emissions that are greater than today in 2050, would make nonsense of any net zero goals and their accompanying abatement measures.

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