Insights: Airports and Sustainability – Four Reasons Not to Give Up

Solar panels near airport

Just a few short months ago companies and airports alike were excitedly planning Earth Day events to celebrate achievements and use the milestone as a call to action. While the entire aviation industry pivots, we reflect on what this means and why sustainability may be more important now than ever. With ongoing discussions and hard work happening through varied industry organizations, the following is just a narrow snapshot from the C&S Aviation Sustainability team. We look forward to continuing the dialogue and learning from each other as the situation continues to evolve.

1 – Renewables offer a financial lifeline and budget stabilization
It wasn’t long ago airports were installing relatively small solar systems as a public commitment to “going green.” The cost of renewables, even just 10-15 years ago, was so prohibitively high that renewables were reserved for only the most committed stewards. That dynamic has shifted considerably in recent years, where renewables have become a business proposition to airports. Rapidly declining prices and significant incentives have made large-scale renewables, particularly solar, attractive development options. These systems enable airports to lock in stabilized electricity rates for as long as 25 or 30 years, helping to reduce uncertainty in long term budgeting. What’s more, these systems can even generate revenue in the form of lease payments. Of course, the cherry on top is the delivery of carbon-free renewable electricity helping to power airports into the future.

Amidst uncertainty in our rapidly changing world, it may seem tempting to sideline renewable energy projects in favor of more pressing near-term priorities. But, in a time when cash flow is top of mind for airports, renewables may actually be part of the solution. Creative financing options such as power purchase agreements enable airports to capture the economic benefits of solar with zero upfront cost, and third-party ownership eliminates maintenance costs while enabling the capture of tax incentives that are set to decline in future years. If there were ever a time to lean in on renewables, or even energy efficiency, that time might just be now.

2 – A new emissions outlook should reinforce commitments and can help prioritize projects
This year’s significant drop in aviation-related carbon emissions is already raising questions around airline commitments to emission reductions. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) warns that the United Nations-led Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) may be abandoned unless there are changes made to address the planned baseline – an average of 2019/20 emissions. Using the historically low numbers of 2020 would result in higher costs of offsetting to this baseline in future years. Despite these financial implications, it will be prudent to reinforce commitments to carbon management at this time.

The decline in air traffic has provided many residents with a taste of life without a bustling air network, and may lead to increased public attention on emissions and local air quality when activity ramps up. Airlines and airports alike should keep this in mind as priorities shift.

In addition to maintaining commitments, airports who participate in carbon reporting programs such as Airport Carbon Accreditation, should carefully assess their goals and metrics to maintain accountability while also acknowledging current conditions. It may be worth revisiting emissions projections used to establish targets so that programs remain reputable and sustainable for future years. We also recommend revisiting carbon management and stakeholder engagement plans to determine which strategies offer the most benefits across airport systems. For example, prioritizing electric charging infrastructure for ground support equipment in a more centralized location that can be accessed by multiple users and, for optimal benefits, in an area where the offset of fossil fuel will most benefit employees’ health and wellness (e.g., in areas close in to terminals with potential for pollutants to “stack”).

3 – The health and well-being pillar of sustainability is now paramount
There are a number of ways in which airports can implement and show concerted efforts to improve passenger health and well-being. Aircraft and terminal cleaning protocols are now a focal point and developing a long-term plan for providing enhanced cleaning services and increased sanitizing options shows a commitment to public health. This is a time for innovation as artificial intelligence provides new possibilities for economies of scope and scale. Fortunately, the aviation industry has an excellent foundation of deploying emerging technologies to address new hurdles and customer concerns. While many options are under review, it is important to balance the sanitation and detection benefits with other health considerations. The industry will benefit from broad information-sharing and can look to entities like the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), which established a task force to address the current situation’s impacts in the built environment.

4 – Avoiding the single-use comeback requires a proactive approach
As we make a justified pivot to health and safety, how do we avoid backsliding on our efforts to avoid single-use products and waste? For anyone following the recycling market or paying attention to their bills, the past two years brought a shocking decline in recycling as contamination thresholds (the percent of “unclean” material acceptable in a load of recyclables) plummeted. One positive from this recent turmoil is our understanding that we cannot rely on recycling to solve our waste problem. So, in this time when generation of materials may be increasing, airports need to focus on reducing demand and addressing the supply chain, i.e., selecting materials with minimal impacts.

With activity levels historically low, revisiting waste management and procurement practices may seem like low priorities. However, any rebound in travel will be closely followed by skyrocketing generation of specific materials – such as gloves and cleaning supplies. Establishing working groups now around these topics can help prepare for more sustainable solutions on both the inputs to, and management of, the system.

On an encouraging note, airports, concessionaires, and recently, airlines, are taking action to limit waste and help communities by donating unsold perishables to local charities or health care workers. These programs were previously established at many airports, but the heightened focus on community stemming from current conditions may lead to broader implementation and new relationship building. As waste management fees increase, these programs can even offer cost savings.

Corey Johnson

Surplus food donation is a perfect example of what sustainability can, and should, mean – benefiting people, minimizing impacts, and reducing costs. This lens can be applied to all decision making to enable long-term thinking, even when faced with short-term challenges.

In a time of unprecedented challenges, a strengthened commitment to sustainability can make a major difference. It shows communities that airports care, it facilitates balanced solutions, and it enables financial stability even with uncertainty. We hope airports will maintain the momentum gained over the past decade as we enter the next one, no matter the hurdles.

Corey Johnson, CEM, ENV SP, Principal Consultant

To learn more about incorporating sustainability at your airport, contact Corey at, or (315) 420-7961.

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