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ENVIRONMENT Last modified on May 22, 2017

Leading the way

A new solar farm has reduced Belfast International Airport’s energy bills by £100,000 in its first 10 months of operations. A new solar farm has reduced Belfast International Airport’s energy bills by £100,000 in its first 10 months of operations.

Airports are perfectly placed to become sustainability leaders and role models for the communities they serve, writes Air Transport Action Group’s Haldane Dodd.

Aviation connects the world, literally. Our industry brings together people, business and cultures like no other. 

Every day, over 100,000 flights join 10 million passengers with their destinations. We transport $6.4 billion in cargo every year. We facilitate 54% of world tourists. Most importantly, we connect remote communities and we bring families together. 

We play a vital role in modern lives and, as middle classes grow in emerging economies around the world, we will allow more people than ever to see the world. By 2034, we estimate that there will be around seven billion passengers travelling each year – a doubling of today’s demand.

That growth brings with it both opportunities and challenges. Businesses in the industry can continue to grow as they meet the needs of citizens to travel and whole economies benefit when they open up to the world through the connectivity of air travel. 

Challenges come in two forms. The challenge to our industry of meeting the growth with infrastructure development, guaranteeing we have the workforce needed in the coming years and ensuring growth does not just mean further congestion in the skies and on the ground. But we also have a responsibility to ensure that growth takes care of our impacts on the world, particularly on communities and the environment.

‘Sustainability’ is sometimes seen as an overused phrase these days. It remains an important concept though: ensuring that the actions we take today help support the future of the industry, of society and the planet, rather than simply depleting resources. Importantly, sustainability is not just about doing things in a ‘green’ way, but also respecting the development of society, providing decent jobs, fostering education and ensuring that the business can thrive well into the future as well.

A global sustainable development framework

In 2015, the international community developed a framework for the next 15 years of global development. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are intended to bring millions out of poverty, whilst also ensuring that the progress takes place with environmental and social requirements in mind. 

As with any United Nations programme of action, it is necessarily a broad set of goals, but one that builds an agenda that both governments and businesses can use to set their own sustainability objectives. 

Aviation contributes directly to at least 14 of the 17 SDGs, some in larger ways than others. See more about the goals at https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs

Airport leadership

Airports are a critical component of the cities they serve, generating economic growth, supporting jobs and acting as lifelines in times of trouble. Naturally, with such large pieces of infrastructure, there is an inevitable environmental and social impact. 

However, most airports are able to take steps to minimise the negative impact of their development and, in fact, I believe that airports have a unique opportunity to act as leaders in their communities in terms of best practice environmental and social action. 

In this regards airports are already taking firm steps to mitigate their climate impact, instituting green policies that reduce carbon dioxide emissions and lessen their impact on local air quality.


The airport sustainability influence 

It all starts with the role of the airport operator itself, taking a proactive approach towards sustainable thinking. This could influence – with consultation – the way the entire airport community can move towards comprehensive sustainability planning. 

More importantly, the concentration of businesses and employees at an airport site means that it can also set an example for off-airport businesses, communities, cities and even across some entire nations.

Airports can influence across a range of sustainability areas. These include new energy options; sustainable purchasing; better access options; supporting community engagement; and social and economic improvement.

Therefore, airports have a great potential to influence their partners to move to a more sustainable business practice which can lead to natural amplification of that change outside the airport boundary. 

One example could be shifting away from fossil-based fuels and towards more sustainable options. As many gateways have already done, an airport can build charging stations for electric vehicles, promoting their use for internal airport traffic. 

Another example is working with environmental agencies, so airport staff or local taxi companies could be given incentives to switch their transport to electric vehicles. The spread of electric vehicles could then be encouraged outside the boundaries of the airport itself.

Over 100 airports worldwide have installed solar power facilities: those on small islands and remote locations like Palau in the Pacific Ocean are often leading the way for their communities to benefit from new energy sources as well.

How an airport connects with the city it serves is an added value of its sustainability influence on surrounding communities. Improving the local air quality by the development of more efficient ground transportation links is a classic example of what can be done.

Without doubt the availability of more efficient ground transportation is essential to create a disincentive to using private vehicles. 

Affordable – or even free – efficient public transport for passengers or staff, bike lanes and bike storage facilities or car sharing on an airport-wide scale are all options that are already taking place at many airports worldwide. Incorporating such schemes into airport planning could increase an airport operator’s ability to positively influence the sustainability of the communities they serve.

In fact, airports are well placed to take on positions of social leadership in their surrounding communities and some, of course, have already started to do this. They include London’s Heathrow Airport, which recently released a comprehensive sustainability framework that can serve as a model for others.

This social leadership concept can take the form of relationships with local education providers, sports teams and community groups and can not only provide support to those activities, but also help build the airport workforce of the future. 

Work fairs can introduce airport employers with potential employees from local communities. Building relationships with schools can inspire students into technology, enabling great careers in aircraft maintenance, or to airport executive positions.

Part of a bigger picture

As a responsible industry, we must build on the good work already being done and achieve the ideals of sustainable development and responsible growth, not only to safeguard our ability to continue to serve our stakeholders, but also to show an airport’s role as a driver of sustainability in all aspects. 

This means becoming more efficient in the economic sense, but also the social and environmental, decarbonising operations and transport links, as well as encouraging environmentally responsible ambitions like biodiversity on airport land. 

Working together with the aviation industry and the communities they serve, our airports can move towards becoming one of the central exponents of sustainability and become an inspiration to their communities and other industries alike.

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