Towards a new level of ambition

August 21, 2019

The issue of Climate Change and its potentially catastrophic repercussions are now broadly considered with a new level of urgency, against the background of the latest reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Media coverage of the issue has increased significantly in the past year. Public engagement has never been higher, as reflected in intensifying policy debates around climate change and the uptake of global citizen movements, such as Fridays for Future, with student strikes taking place in over 100 countries in the world every week. 

Increasingly, emissions from certain transport modes, among them aviation, are talked about in the public debate in terms of perceived graveness of their impact on the climate. While some attitudes seem out of proportion when put into context of the estimated 2% of global emissions that aviation is accountable for according to the IPCC, they are starting to gain traction with the most important audience for airports – the travelling public, especially so in Europe. The continent has become a hotbed of environmental activism, with an exceptional level of engagement in the Northern parts, driven by Greta Thunberg and movements such as Extinction Rebellion. 

The immediate reaction from some parts of the public has been to call to stop flying altogether, a measure that is at once drastic, up in the air and unrealistic. Air connectivity is vital to the economic and social development of world’s regions. The enemy in the socioeconomic context is carbon, not flying. The aviation sector, supported by the ATAG environmental goals, recognises that it has a climate problem and is investing resources to deal with it. At present, there is no silver bullet solution to emissions from flying, but a combination of investment in sustainable aviation fuels, reorganisation of Air Traffic Management, technological advancement, in particular in electric propulsion, CORSIA and, last but not least, decarbonised airports, could lay the foundation for aviation as a sector that can reach net zero emissions. 

For many airport operators driving down their CO2 emissions is not new. Following the first collective commitment of the world’s airports to reduce their CO2 emissions with the ultimate goal of becoming carbon neutral, made through an ACI World Resolution from 2007, effects of their work are demonstrated through the extraordinary uptake and progression through the four levels of Airport Carbon Accreditation. There are now 282 accredited airports globally. Fifty-three of them have reached the highest, currently available level of CO2 management – carbon neutrality. The Airport Carbon Accreditation programme celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The climate work delivered by airports around the world through its framework is remarkable. 

However, a new level of urgency is palpable and it has to be met with a new level of climate ambition too. This is the backdrop against which ACI World has created a Task Force that is currently working on the development of a global, long-term climate goal for the world’s airports. For its part, the European airport industry has already raised the stakes of airport climate action, supported by the environment-minded leadership of ACI EUROPE, by pledging to reach net zero carbon emissions from operations fully within the airports’ own control by 2050 at the latest. The concept of ‘net zero carbon emissions’ underpinning this commitment is different from the term of ‘carbon neutrality’ used within Airport Carbon Accreditation, because it does not allow for offsetting. According to the IPCC, net zero carbon emissions are achieved “when anthropogenic CO2 emissions are balanced globally by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a specific period”.  Three regional airports in Sweden, operated by Swedavia, have already achieved this state: Luleå, Ronneby and Visby. This new commitment set out in line with the ambition of the Paris Agreement and announced at the 29th ACI EUROPE General Assembly & Annual Congress in Cyprus engages the whole ACI EUROPE membership and in addition, has been undersigned by 45 airport operators managing 199 airports.

As a tool supporting airports in their carbon management efforts, the Airport Carbon Accreditation programme is set to evolve in alignment with the new scientific and political developments in the area of climate action, as well as airports’ needs in the various world regions. Watch this space!