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ENVIRONMENT Last modified on March 28, 2012

Greenlight to grow

ACI environmental senior manager, Xavier Oh, reflects on the need for aviation to address local and global issues in order to get permission to grow.

Environmental issues in aviation need to be discussed in the context of ‘sustainability’ and the needs of future generations, jointly considering the impacts and benefits to society, the economy and the environment.

If aviation is to assist society to further develop, society needs to grant aviation permission to grow. Aviation must, however, demonstrate an ability to compensate for growth, notably through expanding its activities without expanding its adverse effects.  

The aviation industry and ICAO have set out a roadmap to address CO2 emissions based on aircraft technology, operational efficiency, market-based measures and sustainable biofuels. And make no mistake about it, airport operators must play a key role by mitigating their own GHG emissions and working with other industry stakeholders to address aircraft, ground transportation and other related-emissions. 

Aircraft noise, however, continues to be the most pressing local environmental issue for most airports.

Community outreach and communications are the vital links between efforts to compensate for growth and the mitigation of environmental pressure to obtain society’s permission to grow based on mutual trust and partnership.

Aviation and climate change

In 2010, ICAO’s General Assembly Resolution 37/19 approved a framework for addressing aviation’s contribution to climate change that included the following features:

 - A basket of measures for Member States to implement to reduce aviation emissions

 - A global goal of an average annual efficiency improvement of 2% through to 2050, including fleet and operational improvements

 - A global aspirational goal of achieving carbon neutral growth from 2020 onwards

 - A set of principles for the design and implementation of market-based measures for international aviation

 - A target to implement a new CO2 emissions standard for aircraft by 2013

 - A process for ICAO to collect data from states on their Action Plans for achieving these goals

The agreement of these goals and principles by the ICAO Member States represents an important achievement unparalleled by any other international industry and is a significant step towards incorporating international aviation into any post-Kyoto climate agreement. 

Industry goals

The aviation industry, represented by the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), includes stakeholders such as ACI, International Air Transport Association (IATA), Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO) and the leading individual aircraft airframe and engine manufacturers.

The joint aviation industry position on addressing aviation CO2 emissions is closely aligned with ICAO’s goals. The industry goal for average annual efficiency improvement is 1.5% (less than ICAO’s 2%, but not including the portion that falls under the responsibility of governments such as releasing military airspace) and industry has the same goal for carbon neutral growth from 2020.  

ATAG has a further goal of achieving absolute CO2 emissions reductions of 50% (relative to 2005 levels) by 2050. This will be achieved by a combination of aircraft technology advances, fleet renewal, operational improvements and, crucially, aviation fuels produced from biomass sources.


Biofuels for aviation have moved from concept to reality in five years and are a potential game changer for the sustainability of aviation. By early 2011, there had been a dozen test flights on large passenger aircraft with some of the fuel made from biomass sources.  

In mid-2011, fuel with 50 % bio-derived synthetic content blended with conventional fuel, was officially certified for aviation. These fuels are ‘drop in’ substitutes and will not require changes to aircraft or airport fuel delivery infrastructure.

The biomass sources include crops such the jatropha nut, the camelina grain and algae, and others such as municipal and forestry waste material and spent cooking oil. Great care is being taken by the aviation industry to identify and develop biomass sources that will not adversely affect food, water and land supply.  

Many challenges lie ahead, especially the massive scaling of biomass production and refining capabilities.

Airports and climate change

As airports are the interface between aviation and ground transportation, the management and responsibility for emissions are less clear-cut for airport operators.  

Activities and emissions sources need to be categorised according to ownership and influence. ACI provides recommendations to its airport members in the publication Guidance Manual on Airport Greenhouse Gas Emissions Management (2009), which categorises emissions into 3 scopes:

Scope 1 emissions are from sources that are owned or controlled by the airport operator, such as an airport power or heating plant, airport fleet vehicles, construction, and fire fighting.

Scope 2 emissions are those from the off-site generation of electricity purchased by the airport operator.

Scope 3 emissions are those from airport-related activities from sources not owned or controlled by the airport operator, including aircraft, most ground support equipment and most ground access vehicles, such as private cars and public transport.

GHG mitigation measures

Some examples of measures for an airport operator’s Scope 1 and 2 emissions reductions include the modernisation of the power, heating and cooling plants; the generation or purchase of electricity and heating from renewable sources; and the modernisation of fleet vehicles especially using alternative fuels, such as compressed natural gas (CNG), hydrogen, electricity, compressed air and hybrid vehicles.

In addition, airports can reduce aircraft emissions by actions such as improving taxiway layouts and reducing aircraft queuing with options such as slot management, virtual queuing and delayed push-back.

Non-aircraft Scope 3 emissions are dominated by transport activities on the ground, essentially public and private vehicles travelling to and from the airport and airport ground handling vehicles themselves. 

Working with different stakeholders, airports can help reduce these emissions by efforts that range from the provision of new public transport links such as new train services through to encouraging the use of alternative fuel or hybrid taxis, rental and other cars using incentives such as priority queuing, parking cost reduction and priority parking areas.  

Carbon neutrality and accreditation

ACI encourages its members to set goals on both GHG emissions sources within their control and those in the control of stakeholders, which they can influence. For an airport’s Scope 1 and 2 emissions, the ultimate target is for the airport to become carbon neutral.  

Carbon neutral status can be achieved by reducing emissions as much as practical, then purchasing carbon offset credits for the remaining emissions.  Offset credits must comply with international standards and be fully verified.

Airports can attain recognition for their achievements in carbon management with Airport Carbon Accreditation (2011), which recognise four levels of progress – Inventory, Emissions Reduction, Stakeholder Optimisation and Carbon Neutrality.  

The project started in Europe in 2009 and is now expanded to the Asia-Pacific region. During the first and second year of operations, it contributed to reducing CO2 emissions from airports by 411,000 tonnes, and 730,000 tonnes, respectively.

Aircraft noise

Historically, aircraft noise has been the most pressing issue for local communities and this remains the situation despite massive reductions in individual aircraft noise emissions in recent decades.  

Indeed, noise remains the issue most likely to trigger environmental pressure and mobilise local residents against airport infrastructure or capacity expansion. 

There are two distinct, but linked, battlegrounds. The aviation industry is seeking approval of its CO2 roadmap from global society and the UNFCCC. Airports require permission to grow from regional governments and local communities whose main concern is noise. The CO2 roadmap, however, is dependent on mitigation of airport and airspace congestion.

An airport operator has three fundamental avenues for managing aircraft noise, although none is fully within the control of the airport operator – (1) Reducing the level of aircraft noise emissions; (2) Reducing the number of people exposed to high noise levels; and (3) Improving community acceptance of the airport and its activities.

Aircraft noise management includes using the best technology and
flight procedures to reduce incident noise levels as well as introducing measures such as noise related landing fees to incentivise airlines to switch to quieter aircraft.

Airports usually can only request that local governments discourage residential encroachment.

They also need to proactively foster community relations based on open and clear communications and social programme initiatives as discussed in the final section of this article.  

Noise specific actions can include monitoring noise levels in the community and publishing the results in accessible, non-technical formats; fielding and responding to individual noise complaints; and establishing and maintaining community liaison groups for consulting and dealing with issues that arise.

Local air quality

Noise management primarily addresses the mitigation of adverse response from noise-affected communities. In contrast, the management of airport Local Air Quality (LAQ) and relevant emissions fundamentally targets achieving and maintaining compliance with local regulation on permissible levels of pollutant concentrations.  

An airport with a history of non-compliance with LAQ regulations can be subject to pressure from regulators and communities when planning permission for infrastructure expansion is required.

Starting with the relevant national and regional LAQ regulations, an airport operator should assess compliance for each pollutant species and determine which emissions sources are contributing to any non-compliance. 

This assessment can include monitoring LAQ pollutant concentrations and conducting emissions inventories and dispersion modelling. This should indicate the relative importance of various emissions sources and activities at airports such as aircraft, ground support equipment, fleet vehicles, power and heating plants and local road traffic.  

Addressing LAQ problems is fundamentally achieved by reducing emissions and, virtually all of the GHG mitigation measures described earlier will also mitigate LAQ emissions.  

Given the strict Swiss LAQ regulations, Zurich Airport has one of the most comprehensive airport LAQ management programmes including monitoring, modelling, inventory, aircraft APU restrictions and landing fees with a NOx emissions component. 

Water use

Potable water use can be reduced by modern plumbing practices including low flow taps and showers, detector controlled toilet flushing, maintenance and leak detection. 

Much potable water use can be replaced with water from other sources including rain water from roofs and tarmac, treated waste water and recycled cooling water.  

Landscape planting should use native or arid zone plants needing little water.  Brisbane Airport achieved a potable water use reduction of 72% in a four-year period, a reduction equivalent to 24,000 households.

Storm water can be collected from roofs, tarmac and landscaped areas. Depending on the collection, storage and possible contamination, the water may require treatment ranging from settling ponds to a proper water treatment plant.  

Use will depend on water quality and could range from landscaping to vehicle and building washing, and toilet flushing. A crucial task of storm water management includes keeping water with tarmac residues from contaminating surface water courses. 

Soil and land management

Soil, surface and ground water can be contaminated by storm water run-off, fuel spills, de-icing fluids and other spill incidents. Spill prevention and reaction to incidents are operational and environmental responsibilities. 

Poorly planned land management can provide habitat that creates a bird and wildlife hazard.

Solid waste

There are many streams of solid waste at an airport including, municipal waste from concessions and passenger areas; waste from airfield operations and maintenance such as derelict equipment, pallets and hazardous materials like paint thinners; deplaned waste that might require incineration, and debris from construction and demolition.

Some streams are regulated, some materials can be recycled, and some can generate income. 

Community relations

The perception of the environmental impact by neighbouring residents can be as important as the physical effects. Fostering positive community relations can make a vital contribution to the mitigation of adverse environmental pressure resulting from airport operation.

The goals of an airport’s community engagement programme should include establishing and maintain the trust of the community, because if the public does not believe the information provided, there is no foundation to achieve community engagement. This trust is built upon a long-term culture of honesty and transparency.

If communities can grant the airport permission to operate and grow, and airports can undertake sufficient voluntary measures, then overly restrictive regulation and court actions can be avoided.

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