Analyzing airport decarbonization progress in Europe and worldwide

Analyzing airport decarbonization progress in Europe and worldwide

Decarbonization is a pressing challenge for the world’s airports. Airports need to meet the aviation industry’s net-zero ambitions and the demands of a climate-aware public, as well as the needs of a customer base that is increasingly keen to travel by air again.

Generally, airports are making promising progress in decarbonization, largely through reductions in their Scope 1 and 2 emissions. This is achieved through a number of initiatives, including the purchase and production of renewable energy, using electric vehicles, and installing low-consumption lighting with smart controls in the airport building. Airports can also play a significant role in tackling the emissions of the aircraft, passengers, and employees that use the airport (Scope 3), but the pathways to achieving this are less clear. As a result, progress is more nuanced. Nevertheless, effective strategies are implemented at several airports—for example, working to improve public transportation use by passengers and employees. Incentivizing airlines to use more efficient planes and sustainable aviation fuel is another ongoing strategy.

A cooperative approach is crucial, particularly for tackling Scope 3 emissions. The variety of different locations, traffic sizes, customers, commercial pressures, and regulatory environments that airports operate within only adds to the complexity. The result is that airports globally are at different stages of decarbonization.

The Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA) program

Given this diversity, one of the best ways to measure progress is through an effective global accreditation program. This offers a useful benchmark for comparing the decarbonization efforts of different airports.

The Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA) program is the most notable example, launched by the Airports Council International Europe (ACI-Europe) in 2009. ACI is the global voice of airports around the world and the program now covers all of the regions that ACI represents.

So how does it work and what impact has it had so far? ACA’s global carbon management certification program is open to all airports, regardless of their size. It provides a framework that encourages airports to actively reduce their carbon footprint by cutting energy consumption, while at the same time, sharing expertise and knowledge. It also provides a useful benchmark for airports to communicate their results and progress more consistently.

The ACA certification recognizes that airports are at different stages of decarbonization. To this end, it provides six levels of accreditation that become increasingly tough in their qualifying requirements. These range from Level 1, which requires a commitment to reduce emissions, to Level 4+, which requires a Carbon Management Plan, Stakeholder Partnership Plan, and the offset of any residual emissions.

To date, there are over 400 ACA-accredited airports. Of these, 87 are already at Carbon Neutrality (Level 3+) or above and 36 are at Level 4 or 4+. Most airports achieved this through a combination of decarbonization measures, including:

  • Purchasing renewable electricity
  • Installing on-site renewable power generation
  • Investing in hybrid, electric, or renewable gas-powered service vehicles
  • Improving energy efficiency of airport terminals
airport decarbonization progress

How effective is the Airport Carbon Accreditation program so far?

It is important to note that the ACA program was first launched in Europe. This means that European airports had a head start over other airports globally as they attempt to earn their accreditations.

As a result, Europe achieved significantly more progress compared to other regions around the world. This is reflected in some of the key numbers around ACA. More European airports (39%) joined ACA, compared to 24% worldwide (“worldwide” includes European airports, but only those with more than 1 million passengers per year). Of all European airports, 15% are accredited at Level 3+ or above. Across the rest of the world, that figure drops to just 6%. Nine of the top 10 largest European airports are accredited at Level 3+ or above. Italy, meanwhile, has the most 4+ rated airports, followed closely by France.

airport decarbonization progress

Accreditation is also accelerating rapidly, particularly in Europe. All sizes of airports now take part in the program—even some of the smallest. Airports in Ibiza, Carcassonne, Perpignan Rivesaltes, Béziers Cap d'Agde, and Pau Pyrenees in France all recently received their first ACA accreditation. Around the world, airports such as Libreville Léon M'ba Airport in Gabon are actively reducing emissions since 2015 and recently achieved Level 2 accreditation renewal. In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro's Santos Dumont Airport is also recently accredited.

Next steps on the road to net-zero

This surge in ACA accreditation is welcome. But to make even greater progress, airports will now need to focus on two key opportunities.

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The first is to continue the good work in tackling Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions while charting a path towards net-zero. An additional ACA-level equivalent to net-zero seems an inevitable evolution of the program and a necessary step to providing credibility and assurance. But there are many airports that have not yet started their decarbonization journey. These airports could benefit immensely from a community approach that facilitates the sharing of data, learning, and experiences by market leaders.

The second opportunity is the reduction of Scope 3 emissions, accounting for over 80% of airport emissions. While the largest opportunity for emission reduction, Scope 3 efforts present the most serious challenge. Emissions from third parties—aircraft take-offs and landings or the emissions of employees and customers as they travel to the airport for example—are difficult to tackle without considerable cooperation. In addition, much of the technology that could also help to reduce these third-party emissions is still emerging.

To reduce these emissions, airports need to collaborate with and have the support of multiple stakeholders and third parties. Airports will take different approaches to this, and for achieving this kind of collaborative approach. Incentivization will also play a key role, as well as building a very clear understanding of who is responsible for emissions and how their actions can contribute to a shared good that benefits everyone.

The ambitious objective of policymakers, industry stakeholders, and citizens to rebuild the aviation industry more sustainably in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic—the Green Recovery—provides a positive environment for delivering change. But airports also face huge commercial pressures in the wake of the losses they sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic. Making climate-positive changes that meet the requirements of the Green Recovery, while balancing the demands of every stakeholder and remaining commercially viable, represents an enormous challenge—but it is one that the world’s airports must be ready to face.

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