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  • Writer's pictureHeini Noronen-Juhola

Airports and carbon sinks

There is a big urge to reduce CO2 emissions throughout the aviation industry. Even though flying is mostly blamed in this context, the public discussion demands more actions from all the stakeholders in the industry.

Compared to the airlines the airports have a slightly different kind of a challenge as far as sustainability is concerned. Most of the CO2 emissions come from the buildings and the infrastructure. The terminal buildings are very large. Typically there are many other buildings at the terminal area as well and all these buildings together form the village of airport buildings. Changing the energy sources to sustainable and reducing the energy consumption with better construction solutions or controlling the conditions inside the buildings can bring good results in CO2 savings. Changing the lights into led lights can bring savings in the buildings but also at traffic areas like runways or taxiways. Cars and other equipment can use sustainable fuel. There are many more examples like recycling as well.

The rest of the CO2 targets that can't be reached with the above mentioned actions can be gained with offsetting. During the past few years we have seen a big market emerging for offsetting CO2 emissions for any industry. This is how it´s quite realistic also for the airports to gain a CO2 neutrality.

What´s common to both airlines and the airports when they are making sustainability actions? The current actions are typically made with energy savings and to improve the business case. If the action would be an investment for sustainability without a business case, would it happen?

Let´s take an example. The airports are many times large areas. There are outdoor areas where the access is extremely restricted, like the areas close to runways and other traffic areas. Runways are often at least 3km long and around them there are wide safety zones. There is typically a grass surface.

I´ve tried to find case examples of airports that have changed these areas into carbon sinks. I can´t find any. Nor have I found or heard about any discussions why this couldn't be done. Most likely it isn't the best kind of a business case. Bus as far as the airport sustainability actions are concerned, this would be a great option to turn operationally useless areas into sustainably active areas.

There are restrictions to what kind of plants can be grown here because of wildlife and bird control needs. Still I'm pretty sure that there are suitable and better plants for CO2 reductions than just grass.

Carbon sink isn't a new idea for the airports in their work towards CO2 emissions. Carbon sinks are often used as a means to offsetting emissions. For example Heathrow airport has invested in Scottish and Lyon Airports at Rhone area carbon sink projects. These are of course very good and interesting projects. But how about something at their own area?

What if instead of (or on top of) focusing on finding the cost savings and outsourcing the offsetting actions the airports would try to transform their large areas to carbon sinks wherever it's applicable? This would require investments to plants and maintenance, but it would benefit the sustainability. The business case or the effectiveness might not be as good as with outsourced carbon sinks but as an addition to what is been done already this could add value. This could also help with going below net zero CO2 emissions.

We need all the sustainability actions we can get. Calculating the business case is the challenge. Calculating the sustainability case isn't a challenge. The questions is: should there always be a business case and if yes; for whom or what should it be profitable?

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