Green horizon

Boarding at a mountain airport

Enforceable international agreements to reduce emissions and the widespread use of bio-fuels are two of the major objectives of greater sustainability in commercial air travel. Gary Mason reports from the Airports Going Green Conference held at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam at the end of last year to hear what progress has been made.

Sustainability is now a key topic for airports and the commercial aviation industry but what is the reality behind the rhetoric? As passenger numbers continue to grow and emerging newer markets in Asia strengthen their industry dominance, can an industry which is dependent on an abundance of fossil fuel make genuine strides to reduce its CO2 emissions?

Haldane Dodd, is Head of Communications at the Air Transport Action Group.

He says in the last 12 months there has been a rush of global and regional climate and sustainability initiatives and agreements that relate directly to aviation. Although the December 2015 climate accord in Paris does not cover CO2 emissions from global aviation, it did include domestic flights and specifically, emissions from airports.

In February last year, governments and industry leaders meeting at ICAO also agreed to the world’s first CO2 standards for new aircraft. This means that from 2020 it will be a legal requirement –  in the same way that safety and on-board systems for new aircraft are tested – for new planes to be rigorously tested to that CO2 standard. From 2027 all aircraft in production that do not meet those standards will have to cease production.

This measure alone will be estimated to save more than 650 million tones of CO2 emissions from 2020-2040. Dodd points out the aviation standard will be more rigorous than that for the motor industry for example which is largely dependent on “amateur” operators ie ordinary motorists. “Aircraft are purchased by airlines which invest years in investigating the most fuel efficient model for their needs,” he says. “They are then flown by extremely qualified pilots and guided through the skies by other experts in air traffic control.”

The CO2 standard is not meant to be the final word on technology efficiency but it builds on years of work undertaken in the manufacturing sector and it is a measure that will push manufacturers tighter as it is implemented over time, he adds.

Of course, the sustainability calculations relating to aviation must include the enormous economic benefits to the global economy. Nearly 63 million jobs are supported by the air transport industry across the world. It also generates $2.7 trillion in global economic activity  – which is one third of total global trade by value.  The hubs of the global air transport sector are shifting economically towards the fast developing Asia Pacific and African regions. As economies and the middle class develop in these regions, people want the same access to economic and business opportunities, specifically relating to trade and tourism, that Europe and North America have enjoyed for decades.

In fact the Asia Pacific region is now the world’s largest aviation market having overtaken North America two years ago. On the back of this new growth, in the next 20 years it has been forecast that more than 100 million jobs worldwide will be supported by aviation.

In October last year ICAO also reached a significant agreement on aviation sustainability and climate change in Montreal. Four main goals were set out and were achievable through a mix of new technology and alternative fuels. But it also includes improved operational performance, better use of existing infrastructure and in order to close the emissions gap, a global market mechanism.

The market based measure is in some ways the most interesting initiative, according to Dodd. “It is fairly odd for any industry to actively promote an idea like this,” he says. “Because this measure will actually cost us more. But we even managed to get a number of CEOs to sign up to the cause. It is important because it will allow our industry to continue to grow and provide all the benefits to developing economies. But it also allows us to avoid a complicated and overlapping patchwork of different measures that would not be environmentally sound and would stifle that growth.”

The Carbon Offsetting Reduction Scheme for International Aviation or CORSIA as it is known is not exactly the agreement that the industry would design itself says Dodd but when you are seeking internationally binding agreements, compromise is needed to get as many countries on board as possible. There were a small number of objecting countries who didn’t sign up to the CORSIA deal but the world’s first global mechanism for dealing with emissions growth from any sector will start operating after 2020.

“It is a complex beast,” says Dodd. “But in simple terms it means that around 80 per cent of the growth in international aviation CO2 will be offset from 2020.” Some 66 countries have signed up to the agreement and it is hoped that more will follow. While there is a voluntary element to the scheme at the beginning of its life span, from 2027 it becomes mandatory aside from a small number of exempt states.

“There has been a lot of interest on the projected costs of CORSIA and we have run a few numbers,” says Dodd. “Airlines of course will usually be allergic to any extra costs imposed on them but compared to the cost of fuel it is minimal and will earn our license to grow well into the future. If you are an airline you need to start preparing now for this. Airports don’t really need to do anything specific but as it is so important to our sector it will undoubtedly have an impact on them as well.”

Of course the biggest and most difficult hurdle the commercial aviation sector will always have to clear in order improve its sustainability credentials is to significantly reduce its almost complete reliance on fossil based fuel. Progress on this has been extremely slow but there have been a number of small milestones in the past 18 months.

In January 2016 Oslo Airport became the first airport in the world to use alternative sustainable fuels for some its flights. In March, United Airlines flights from Los Angeles Airport followed suit.

Olav Larsen, is senior advisor strategy and development, for Avinor, which provides air navigation services for the whole of Norway and also operates 46 airports in the country. Because Norway’s population of just five million people are spread out in quite remote locations, the country is heavily reliant on it airport network. “We often joke that when God created Norway he factored in aviation,” says Larsen. “As the main airport operator we feel this responsibility every day.”

He says that people don’t really understand why an airport operator would become so heavily involved in bio-fuels for aircraft but the answer to that question is quite a simple one. “We saw a decade ago that traffic growth was outpacing emission reductions for the aviation industry as a whole. This did not apply to the airports who were actually reducing their emissions but they were getting hammered for the overall growth in emissions as well.”

This was a huge challenge for Avinor who were attempting to develop its airport network . The elephant in the room was aviation fuel and according to Larsen facing up to this challenge head on was both ethically sound and good for business.

Avinor first started to look into bio-fuels 10 years ago. It decided to invest 100 million Norwegian Krone in R&D in this area. The ultimate aim was to be able to produce bio-fuels which could be used in aviation from forestry residues in Norway.

“Over this time there has been a lot of very fruitful collaboration with academia, potential bio-fuel producers, fuel suppliers, airlines and other stakeholders,” he says.

When the company started the bio-fuels project at Oslo Airport it collaborated closely with Air BP. “They actually came to us and said they were looking into dropping bio-fuels into a hybrid system at an airport,” Larsen says. “It took my CEO exactly two seconds to say yes because we were looking for this opportunity.”

The first stage of the project was establishing that it could be done and there were several administrative hurdles that needed to be overcome. The aviation industry is very conservative and there were also some communication issues, not just concerning the overall concept of sustainability but the principle of mass balance – dropping in biofuels into an airport’s refueling infrastructure so that all airlines “get some biofuels into their wings.”

He says in this project only a few of the airlines were paying the premium cost for use of the bio-fuels. The first batch of bio-fuel was delivered to Oslo in January 2016 – about one year behind schedule. “It took a lot of time to get that batch sorted,” says Larsen. “Thousands of test bio-fuel flights have been carried out but we think this is really a big step up in the process. It is a very important piece in the jigsaw puzzle.  If you can drop these fuels into an airport’s fuel farm it reduces costs significantly.”

One of the reasons for this is that the very steep domestic C02 emissions tax on normal fuels in Norway is waived for bio fuels. But the process of getting that first batch produced was complicated. It was produced from Spanish tonalin oil, refined in Finland and then shipped to Sweden and transported to Oslo by lorries. The second batch is currently being transported from AltAir in California. At the time of the conference the batch was somewhere in the Panama Canal, Larsen said.

This was the first time that bio-fuel has been imported into Europe – there are complicated legal and trade hurdles that need to be cleared but Avinor is hoping that these will ease over time. As far as the fuel itself is concerned it works very well and there are no technical issues, according to Larsen. “We have sorted our all the administrative issues thus far and we have no issues with passengers or airlines.”

The ultimate goal for the project for Avinor Is that within 15 years 30 per cent of all aviation fuel used in Norway should be from bio-fuels. That is approximately 400 million litres depending upon air traffic projections.

The short-term aim is to continue to supply Oslo Airport with bio-fuel and possibly extend that supply to other airports in Norway. “We will also be pushing hard for jet bio-fuel in the political arena,” says Larsen. “There are a lot of instruments that need to be in place to make this profitable and sustainable.

Sustainability at Schiphol

Schiphol Group has joined forces with home carrier KLM, biofuel supplier SkyNRG and several other partners to promote the large-scale use of biofuels in aviation. Schiphol Group and KLM are taking part in a number of university studies and pilot projects to explore options for developing the biofuels market. KLM itself is one of the world’s leading pioneers in biofuels use. Schiphol has extended its membership of KLM’s Corporate BioFuel programme through to 2018.

It is Schiphol Group’s goal to achieve CO2 neutrality for its own operations every year. The airport says it reduces emissions by using sustainable energy and fuels to the fullest extent possible. In 2015 it managed to achieve this ambition, partly by compensating emissions with certificates for Dutch, Belgian and Central-European wind energy and Belgian solar energy projects.

In 2015 the airport retained its 3+ status in Airport Council International’s Airport Carbon Accreditation system. This is the highest status that can be attained and was awarded on the basis of the airport’s investments in biofuels, electrically powered vehicles, use of LED lighting and restriction of commuter traffic.

Electric buses

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol wants to become the most sustainable airport in the world. To achieve this, it invested heavily in reducing emissions. Two examples are the use of 167 electric Schiphol Taxis (Tesla) and 35 fully electric buses for the passengers on airside. There will come electric buses on landside as well. This means that the buses, which will bring passengers, visitors and staff to the airport, will be electric by the end of 2017.

Light as a service

One way to be sustainable is having a circular economy. The airport’s goal is to be zero waste by 2030. “We believe in working together with partners that have ground-breaking plans to put traditional ways of doing business in a different perspective. Plans that have an impact on sustainability are especially very interesting for us. So we try to work together with others who have the same mind set,” a spokesman for the airport says.

“Philips Lighting came up with a whole new idea for the need of light. So we worked together on the implementation of Light as a Service at Schiphol. Light as a Service means that Schiphol pays for the light it uses while Philips Lighting remains the owner of all 3700 ¬xtures and installations. Philips Lighting and Cofely will be jointly responsible for the performance and durability of the system and ultimately its re-use and recycling at end-of-life. By using energy-efficient LED lamps, a 50% reduction in electricity consumption will be achieved over conventional lighting systems.

“Because we don’t buy lamps and fixtures, but we buy light. this whole new way of thinking is, thanks to Philips, is now a part of our airport. The whole new look is great due to the shortage of raw materials, the new business model and the benefits we endure from it. In this way we keep Schiphol future proof, and we become more sustainable as an airport location.”


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