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Airports need new approaches to tackle emissions outside their control 

Airports need new approaches to tackle emissions outside their control 

Aviation is facing multiple challenges, such as rising fuel costs, overcapacity, and labor unrest. As the industry attempts to rebound from COVID-19, it is also looking to shape a more sustainable future for itself.

The pressure to be green is coming from many angles. The airline industry has set its own ambitions—most notably International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) announcement that it is committing to a net-zero carbon emissions target by 2050. New national targets have since followed that declaration. Externally, the increasing social pressure from movements such as flygskam (“flight shaming”) only adds to the sense of urgency and the need for positive action.

So, what role can airports play in the decarbonization process? Many of the world’s airports are now also on their own decarbonization journey, including almost 2,000—represented by the Airports Council International (ACI)—who have committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Our team, working closely with our partners at Airbiz, helped develop this goal. ICF is now supporting airports with practical implementation actions as they decarbonize.

Airports have a role in addressing Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3 emissions

With the pressure growing, airports are now focusing on where they can take the most meaningful action. Many have already taken the most obvious and straightforward steps towards reducing their carbon emissions, particularly in Europe. There, most airports have now made changes in areas in which they have control, such as utilizing renewable energy for heating and cooling buildings.


Scope 1 and 2 emissions offer the most straightforward opportunities for airports to decarbonize. First, they are under the direct or indirect control and influence of the airport. Reducing these emissions typically comes from changes made to building construction, the use of electric vehicles (EVs), and energy efficient equipment owned and used by the airport. The technology to reduce these emissions often already exists, like in the case of EVs, but requires the planning and investment to make them happen. Future technologies, such as hydrogen power, will also become increasingly important in the longer term.

Addressing Scope 1 and 2 emissions is important and challenging in its own right. But the fact remains that Scope 3 are a far more significant source (typically over 80%) of emissions. Despite the fact that these emissions do not fall under the direct control of the airport, there is growing pressure for airports to take an active role in helping to address them.

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The challenge of reducing Scope 3 emissions

Scope 3 emissions relate to emissions from third parties. The most significant of these are the airlines themselves, but also include activities associated with ground handlers, passengers, and employees.

Crucially, the available technology to reduce emissions from some Scope 3 activities is also less mature. Activities in this area are generally harder to decarbonize, with solutions relying on developing technology such as Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). Aircraft emissions represent more than 50% of total emissions at an airport.

Shifting how passengers, employees, and providers get to and from airports represents the second largest source of emissions at an airport. Changing travel behavior, offering environmentally-friendly alternatives, and developing pricing strategies to achieve these goals can have considerable impact on decarbonization goals.

Finally, airports have substantial third party providers to deliver a range of services, from aircraft fueling and handling, to stocking retail stores within a terminal. How to encourage or mandate a greener supply chain requires careful planning by an airport to move towards emissions objectives without hindering airport service providers.

The complex factors influencing decarbonization approaches

Given the many factors impacting an airport—the airport’s size, location, stakeholders, the types of flights it operates, and any applicable mandates—decarbonization will require a tailored approach.

For example, there is strong governmental support in Sweden for an all-electric aircraft fleet, and they have already set targets around zero carbon for domestic flights by 2030. Shorter domestic flight distances in Scandinavia mean that electric aviation is possible, as electric planes are better suited to short-haul trips.

The situation for Heathrow airport is very different, however. There, the majority of traffic is long-haul, so moving to an electric fleet just isn’t viable. An airport like Heathrow would need to try other practical steps to decarbonize, such as SAF that can be used across long-haul.

These decisions can have significant implications for airports, which will need to provide the supporting infrastructure for any new aircraft technologies. But not all Scope 3 emissions are from the aircraft. Airports can also support the decarbonization of passenger and staff journeys to and from the airport by encouraging the use of greener modes of transportation, such as rail and bus, carpooling solutions, and electric cars.

Ultimately, airports face an interesting and complex challenge as they try to decarbonize. They must meet the needs of a range of stakeholders—from airlines to the public—all with differing priorities. For example, at Bristol Airport, the airport’s partners at EasyJet are keen to use hydrogen rather than SAF. That will play a role in the airport’s thinking around decarbonization while also taking into account the upcoming governmental mandates on the use of SAF. Airports also need to consider the contradictory demands of a public that is shaming flying while at the same time booking flights to go on vacation in increasing numbers.

The bottom line is that air traffic will grow in the coming years. Those airports looking to expand are already attempting to win over the public by taking a more sustainable approach. To have a meaningful impact in a decarbonizing effort, airports need to address Scope 3 emissions. Doing this successfully and keeping all stakeholders happy will require a coherent strategy, careful planning, and creative thinking.

Meet the author
  1. Marine Bessoles, Senior Associate, Aviation

    Marine is an aviation consultant with nearly five years of experience in the aviation industry, focusing on ground operations and sustainability. View bio