Effectively tackling Scope 3 emissions is the key to decarbonizing airports

Effectively tackling Scope 3 emissions is the key to decarbonizing airports

Faced with increasingly pressing targets on decarbonization, airports now need to find more ways to address those emissions that fall outside of their direct control. Addressing these Scope 3 emissions is a critical issue in aviation, as they constitute the majority of emissions for most airports.

Reducing them is complex, however, because this process requires the collaboration and support of a wide range of various stakeholders and third parties, each with their own agenda and climate targets to meet.


Clearly, technology will play an important role in reducing Scope 3 emissions for airports. And while much of that technology is still emerging (hydrogen for example), we are already seeing other examples of how technology can make an impact in reducing Scope 3 emissions.

Air transport IT provider “SITA” and Palermo Falcone Borsellino International Airport recently collaborated to trial a new emissions-management technology solution that integrates emissions datasets. The results are already helping the airport to make more informed decisions about where they can make operational efficiency improvements—optimizing take-off and landing cycles, for example. As another example, the Continuous Descent Operations at Brussels Airport saves 10,000 metric tons of CO2 per year.

Yet Scope 3 emissions are still the most difficult for airports to address. So what potential strategies towards reducing Scope 3 can airports take?

Incentivization as a way to encourage third parties to reduce emissions

Incentivizing third parties to reduce emissions is one of the most useful tools available to airports looking to decarbonize. There are a number of successful incentivization schemes currently run by airports around the world.

Since 2022, Heathrow’s landing charges include an escalating incentive for the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). SAF is currently significantly more expensive than standard kerosene aviation fuel. The incentive aims to reduce this cost premium for the airport, as well as emissions from the airlines using Heathrow. It encourages further investment in SAF production in the U.K. via a multi-year sustainable fuel incentive, recovered through an emissions charge. This is not a discount that applies directly to the charges, but instead an incentive pot that is provided on an annual basis to encourage airlines to use SAF.

The Swedish government is considering emission-based take-off and landing fees, increasing costs for less fuel-efficient aircraft. Meanwhile, Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS) also announced a rise in airport charges as an incentive for the use of SAF. The levies will be applied to airlines operating more polluting aircraft, on nitrogen emissions during take-off and landing, and on night flights. At the same time, the airport will encourage airlines to use SAF by giving them €500 for every ton of biofuel and €1,000 for every ton of synthetic fuel they use to refuel. The aim is for a 37% cumulative increase in SAF uptake.

We also see airports using incentivization to drive reductions in Scope 3 emissions in other ways.

For example, Brussels airport promoted sustainable commuting. Employees were given the opportunity to test alternative means of transport for free for three months. The options were bicycle (electric, folding, and carrier), electric car, and/or public transport. As a result of the incentive, 63% of the participants said they would consider biking to work more often, while 70% said they were considering buying an electric car. At Frankfurt Airport, employees now have access to a bike pool, making it easier to borrow bicycles for cycling to various airport locations. So far, 900 employee bicycles are in use.

But while these kinds of incentives are a step in the right direction, they are not enough on their own. To make a significant impact on reducing Scope 3 emissions, airports need to take a collaborative approach that involves many stakeholders.

Building a collaborative approach to reducing Scope 3 emissions

For airports, third-party Scope 3 emissions are harder to reduce because they are not under their direct control.

However, it is important to remember that an airport’s Scope 3 emissions are someone else’s Scope 1 emissions.

For example, the emissions created by an aircraft as it takes off or lands are Scope 3 for the airport—but they are Scope 1 for the airline that has direct control over them. Equally, the emissions created by an airport’s employees as they commute are the Scope 1 emissions of those individuals.

This is a significant point because it underlines the need for a collaborative approach to reducing these kinds of emissions—in most cases, a unilateral approach won’t work. An airport cannot simply mandate that its employees cycle to work. It won’t be practical for all employees, so any solution will need to be supported by both the airport and its employees to work for everyone. In the same way, the airport cannot demand that all of its airlines use an all-electric fleet. If it isn’t in an airline’s interest to invest in this way, they will take their business elsewhere.

As they create their decarbonization strategies, airports must emphasize that reducing carbon emissions is a shared good with a positive impact that benefits all stakeholders. And those benefits are very tangible—an airline will have its own carbon reduction targets to meet and an increasingly climate-conscious customer base to appease.

Big challenges and a shared responsibility

To make a collaborative approach to reducing Scope 3 emissions effective, it's crucial that each party understand their role and align around a shared emission reduction goal. In the same way that each organism has a role in maintaining a natural ecosystem, the different stakeholders using an airport also need to work together to maintain the airport ecosystem.

This is also a difficult moment for many in the industry as the entire aviation sector looks to bounce back post-COVID. Profit margins are tight for airlines, so it can be commercially challenging to make the case for investing in new aircraft or equipment. They also operate within the context of the Green Recovery—a range of economic recovery measures that aim to deliver on key climate change and sustainability goals and ultimately create a more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive economic model for the planet. We’re already seeing how sustainability measures are being linked to financial support for airlines. A notable example is the recent bailout of Air France, which was tied to certain green goals such as halving domestic emissions by the end of 2024.

Governments and policymakers clearly have an important role to play to continue to create a regulatory environment that encourages positive action on Scope 3 emissions. On a global scale, we’ve already seen IATA, ACI, and IAG's Net Zero by 2050 targets and the CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) incentive.

Meanwhile, at a European level, the European Aviation Network has set a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050 for all incoming and outgoing European flights. CO2 emissions from aviation are included in the EU emissions trading system. And the ReFuelEU incentive aims to boost the supply and demand for sustainable aviation fuels across the region. We also note cooperation between the public and private sectors with the Toulouse Declaration, which aims to support European aviation’s goal to reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050.

All of this is encouraging, but success in reducing Scope 3 will ultimately rely on industry stakeholders taking responsibility for delivering on the promises of sustainable aviation—and that will require an innovative, ambitious, and most of all, collaborative approach.

Meet the authors
  1. Isobel Gibson, Senior Consultant - Aviation, Travel and Tourism

    Isobel is an environmental specialist with more than five years of experience developing sustainability strategies for the aviation industry. View bio

  2. 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

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