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Airports and carbon sinks

What if instead of focusing on finding cost savings and outsourcing the offsetting actions, airports would try to transform their large areas to carbon sinks wherever it is applicable?


Heini Noronen-Juhola

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 25.05.2022

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.

Sustainability throughout the airport village

Compared to airlines, airports have a slightly different kind of challenge as far as sustainability is concerned. Most of the CO2 emissions come from the buildings and the infrastructure. The terminal buildings are large, but typically there are many other buildings on the terminal area. All these buildings together form the village of airport buildings.

Changing the energy sources to sustainable, reducing energy consumption with better construction solutions and controlling the conditions inside the buildings can bring good results in CO2 savings. Changing the lights, inside the buildings and outside at runways or taxiways, into led lights bring savings. Cars and other equipment can use sustainable fuel. There are many more such examples as well as recycling.

The rest of the CO2 targets that cannot be reached with the actions mentioned above, can be gained with offsetting. During the past few years we have seen a big market emerging for offsetting CO2 emissions in any industry. Offsetting is the realistic way also for airports to gain CO2 neutrality.

Developing sustainably active surroundings

What is common for both airlines and airports in sustainability actions? The current actions are typically made through energy savings and to improve the business case. If the action would be an investment for sustainability without a business case, would it happen?

The airports are large areas with extremely restricted outdoor areas by runways and other traffic areas. Runways are often at least 3 kilometers long and around them there are wide safety zones, typically covered by grass surface. To my knowledge, not one airport has changed these areas into carbon sinks. Maybe, because it does not make a strong enough business case. However, it would be a great opportunity to turn operationally useless areas into sustainably active areas.

Surely, there are restrictions to what kind of plants can be grown because of wildlife and bird control needs. Still, I am pretty sure that there are suitable and better plants for CO2 reduction than just grass.

Calculating sustainability case vrs business case

The idea of carbon sinks is not a new one. 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 far outside the actual airport areas.

What if instead of (or on top of) focusing on finding the cost savings and outsourcing the offsetting actions, airports would try to transform their large areas to carbon sinks wherever it is applicable?

This would require investments to plants and maintenance, but it would surely benefit sustainability. The business case or the effectiveness might not be as good as with outsourced carbon sinks, but as an addition this could add value. This could even help with reaching below net zero CO2 emissions.

We need all the sustainability actions available. Calculating the sustainability case is not a challenge. Calculating the business case is. A questions to ponder on – should there always be a business case and if yes, for whom or what should it be profitable?