Airports must plot their path to net zero on the route to decarbonising aviation


Gavin Steele

Global Head of Aviation and Director of Infrastructure, Asia

Airports are one part of the complex puzzle to achieve net zero in the global aviation sector, but the sector needs to adopt a programmatic approach to get there.

The global aviation sector is keenly aware of the urgent need to achieve net zero and has already been bold in setting out targets.

However, with predictions that aviation emissions could double over the next 20 years, and the industry still reeling from the financial impact of the pandemic, there are significant long and short-term challenges we need to overcome to achieve the desired and necessary sustainability goals.

Reaching net zero in aviation will require businesses taking a programmatic approach - setting an overarching vision and set of objectives, then working backwards in a consistent and coherent way to identify the stepping stones and interconnected projects and investments needed to get there. How this applies specifically to aviation rests on the unique challenges the industry faces.

Barriers to investing in the future

After decades of expansion, the last two years have been very difficult for airports and airlines as revenue disappeared overnight. While air travel volumes are climbing again, investment capacity has been significantly reduced, and this has had a knock-on effect to planning for net zero – setting back original ambitions by two years or more.

Airports clearly have a key role to play in decarbonising aviation, but the bulk of emissions still come from scope 3 sources: airlines and their planes.

While on paper many airports can achieve carbon neutrality of scope 1 emissions (direct on site emissions), for aviation to reach true net zero, a breakthrough will be needed in how planes are designed and fuelled, either through sustainable aviation fuel, battery technology, or hydrogen power. 

This in turn requires mass investment in innovation and careful direction of research. Incentivising this innovation and investing in positive change is difficult when airports’ and airlines’ financial situations are still potentially bouncing back post-pandemic. Government support will be paramount, and the sector wants to collaborate to make this happen.

New Zealand’s government for example is putting pressure on airlines, and last year launched a join initiative with flag carrier Air New Zealand to pursue biofuels and reach net-zero aviation by 2050.  Other governments need to step up their commitments, and the funding they put behind them.

A programmatic approach can help to offset this worry, create alignment in desired outcomes and give organisations the confidence to invest. It provides clarity to funders who can clearly see every step of the journey, and the costs and risks involved – helping to bolster the business case and why the results are greater than the sum of their parts. 

From innovation to reality

Investment is the first step – but moving from R&D in airline fuel technology through to real practicable solutions is not simple. As well as encouraging airlines to switch to sustainable methods of powering their planes, the large investment airports themselves will need to make will be in putting the infrastructure in place globally to support this. 

This is the case both on site in airports – for example with hydrogen refuelling or electric recharging capability – but also in supporting a global commercial market for these types of fuel and these types of planes. Unfortunately the supply chain simply doesn’t yet exist for this to be realistic.

Given the uncertainty as to what the future of powering planes will look like – it is challenging to expect airports to invest in technology that may not become the global standard.  

With the success of global aviation founded on the principles of common international standards and interoperability it has never been more important for the sector to come together and choose a path, backed by firm and consistent government support.

Another example of the need for cooperation is in the allocation of routes and landing slots. Through the pandemic, stories of empty flights being used to hold on to contracted slots highlighted the need for change on a global level. Meanwhile airports are nervous to punish airlines that don’t go green with higher landing charges, because flights will just go elsewhere.

Both cases highlight the need for change in commercial models. The world needs to move forward together with a common vision and at the same pace, and more organisations clearly and publicly setting out their visions and long-term programmes will help this to happen.

If the sector can see where the consensus view is moving it will help them plan and move from setting goals to taking action.

Aviation as an industry has a unique global platform from which to present a united front to governments and regulators for how to tackle this challenge – an opportunity it has to take in order to keep up with the pace of change required for a net-zero future.

Doing what we can

In the meantime there are significant steps that airports can take and are taking. Almost all major airports have taken advantage of the low-hanging sustainability fruit – such as on or offsite green power generation, replacing lights inside buildings and on runways with LEDs, or electrifying buses, monorails and other ground transport and service equipment. 

Airports like Schiphol in the Netherlands have even focused on robotics to cut carbon – bots that taxi their planes or transport baggage much more efficiently.

Some geographic locations will find this easier than others to make progress. For instance in British Columbia, Canada, more than 98 percent of energy is renewable, powered through plentiful local hydroelectric power generation.

This both makes it simpler for local airports to be using green power, and also opens the door to bolder steps forward such as the mass production of green or blue hydrogen in the region that could be used to fuel planes, buses and even cars.

This is currently being explored via the Government’s B.C. Hydrogen Strategy. However, for all regions it is key to take the long view and plan with a purpose.

Not all airports have the investment capability to build a hydrogen plant on site without a guarantee that airlines would use it, but they can masterplan around it to leave space for the plant when developing other parts of the site.

Other airports simply may not have the space availability for such plants and will need to address their own procurement strategies and supply chain should such technology be adopted.

Similarly, airports can look harder at their embedded carbon when renovating or constructing to ensure that building lifespans are maximised, and the whole-life carbon cost is a low as possible, mitigating risks associated with stranded assets in the future.

Our own carbon calculator tool is an example of the practical ways that businesses can make these comparisons through the design stages of new build projects

The benefits of this are clear both from a green and from a cost perspective – with long-term operating costs much lower for more sustainable buildings. Government leadership is critical here too – for example in the UAE, they have established a sustainability specification programme for construction so buildings can be certified.

The programmatic approach

Using a programmatic approach to deliver net zero in aviation is multifaceted. In airports’ capital programmes it is important to set low carbon outcomes at the start and on a par with the traditional trade-offs of cost, time and quality.

Then airports must mark out the constituent projects and steps needed to reach these, and deliver sustainability throughout these programmes of works – with a view to the whole life carbon of your entire portfolio.

It also goes beyond the operational and the physical aspects of a net-zero programme – spanning the wider sustainability and behavioural aspects. For example, there is real value to be gained from decarbonising water and waste management, and encouraging positive behavioural change.

This might, for example, include incentivising visitors and staff to use public transport over cars to travel to the airport – again with the added benefits that reducing congestion means to the passenger experience and employee journey.

This all means embedding sustainability at every level and from the earliest stages – especially in the business case where too often it is seen as an add on. Achieving this will require redefining the notion of ‘value’ to include sustainability and social outcomes. 

There is a gigantic task ahead to reach net zero in aviation. But as we can see from the way the climate has already changed, the time to act and invest is now.

Organisations have the chance to take the lead, set out their programmatic approaches and deliverable goals, and to call on the government and their peers to support these processes. 

Collaboration and moving as one will be essential – investment in technology and innovation is paramount. The future of flight is green. Those that are ahead of the curve will reap the benefits – environmental, social and economic.

For further information contact:


Gavin Steele
Global Head of Aviation and Director of Infrastructure, Asia

t: +65 9085 1006