See why these 5 executives believe airports are the key to aviation decarbonisation

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A shot of an aeroplane parked at an airport, illustrating the drive towards aviation decarbonisation

Does aviation decarbonisation take off from airports? Image: Photo by VOO QQQ on Unsplash

Laia Barbarà
Acting Head, Climate Strategy, World Economic Forum
Vladimir Borodin
ECP Specialist, Decarbonizing Aviation, World Economic Forum Geneva

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  • The World Economic Forum has announced its new flagship aviation decarbonisation initiative, Airports of Tomorrow.
  • Aviation will not achieve net zero carbon emissions without the rollout of new technologies, such as hydrogen and electric propulsion and Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), airports will play a central role in building, financing and housing the infrastructure for these technologies.
  • We spoke to five aviation executives who laid out why they believe that airports will be the key to unlocking aviation decarbonisation.

With thousands of employees and passengers using them every day, airports can be considered small cities of their own. Almost all of the stakeholders in the aviation ecosystem have facilities at or near airports and conduct business there every day. This includes airlines; aircraft manufacturers; fuel producers and providers; and, ground-handling service providers.

Manufacturing and ground transportation are additional sectors that co-locate near airports, making airport districts one of the most serious aggregators of material and energy demand in our major cities. The massive land footprint of the airport grounds also allows for new on-site infrastructure that typically has not been associated with airport activity before, such as solar photovoltaic farms, blending facilities for liquid fuels and storage for either liquid or gas hydrogen. With this confluence of activity, airports are the central site of both the challenges and opportunities of reducing the climate impact of aviation.

The global aviation industry has already begun acting on decarbonisation, especially through the promotion of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). SAF can be produced from a wide variety of sustainable feedstock, ranging from used cooking oils to forestry residues and even carbon captured directly from the air.

On a regional level, the EU has mandated that 2% of all aviation fuel used must be SAF starting in 2025 as part of the ReFuelEU legislative package. To encourage more production, the United States Inflation Reduction Act includes a 'blenders credit' for each gallon of SAF produced in the country, giving a financial incentive that the US government hopes will increase local SAF production.

On a global level, the member-states of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed on a long-term aspirational goal (LTAG) of net zero carbon emissions for the aviation sector by 2050, while the Air Transport Action Group organized an industry-wide Net Zero goal for the aviation industry – the first such commitment by an entire sector. Demand for sustainable flight and SAF has never been higher. In the future, new technologies beyond SAF, such as hydrogen and battery-electric flight, are projected to make up for 21% to 38% of the carbon reductions in a net zero 2050 scenario.

There are several solutions to achieve net zero by 2050: operational improvements, Sustainable Aviation Fuels (including bio-based and synthetic), as well as battery electric and hydrogen propulsion methods.

The Airports of Tomorrow

The Airports of Tomorrow initiative focuses on meeting this demand by addressing the new infrastructure requirements for the energy transition. It brings together government leaders, climate experts and CEOs from the aviation, energy, construction and finance sectors who agree on the urgent need to reach net zero. Three-quarters of the projected costs for novel propulsion technologies, such as hydrogen (fuel-cell) and battery electric flight, are related to infrastructure and not to renewing of the existing commercial aviation fleet. This initiative brings public and private stakeholders to the table to drive unprecedented collaboration and change in the sector. It will maximise the potential for airports to be vehicles for economic growth and environmental prosperity.

Total investments of up to $5 trillion across the value chain are necessary to decarbonise aviation by 2050.

The World Economic Forum asked CEOs and senior executives for their views on making airports the focus of aviation decarbonisation – here’s what they said:

'Airports of Tomorrow is a critical initiative to accelerate the energy transition'

Luis Felipe de Oliveira, World Director General, ACI

Airports are at the very centre of the aviation ecosystem, representing 60% of the jobs in the industry, a junction where stakeholders from the sector and beyond meet, including passengers, communities and local businesses. Through the Airport Carbon Accreditation, airports work to manage and reduce emissions under their control and engage with their stakeholders and partners to reduce their scope 3 emissions.

Airports can play different roles depending on their local circumstances; they can support, influence and lead and they are in a unique position to foster the collaboration that is rapidly needed across the value chain.

Airports of Tomorrow is a critical initiative to accelerate the energy transition that the aviation industry must achieve. It will rally essential players in order to provide certainty to investors, governments and the communities we serve, as well as clarity on the financing needs to address airports’ future infrastructure needs, as well as the deployment and scale-up of SAF.

We are excited to be working with the World Economic Forum and all partners involved in this initiative.

'The industry is facing an enormous challenge'

Ian Taylor, Director and Global Aviation Business Leader, Arup

Though there is no doubt as to the value to society of aviation, the industry is facing an enormous challenge to reduce and mitigate its impact on the environment.

Arup sees this as a system-level challenge, in which all parts of the industry - governments, fuel manufacturers and suppliers, airports, airlines and aircraft manufacturers - will have to work in partnership.

Airports are central to this challenge, as they influence, directly and indirectly, the full range of the carbon impact of aviation.

For instance, Arup helps airport clients influence surface transport choices for employees and passengers, as this is an area where policies can make a substantial difference. We are also helping airports plot a route to zero emissions; a challenge that is different for each airport, needing flexibility and adapting to individual budgetary constraints. This includes helping to ensure that new developments are delivered with minimum carbon emissions and consider whole-life carbon impacts.

Arup is also working with the broader industry to deliver alternative fuels for flight; airports are key to this too. As well as working with airlines to influence their choices in a way that minimises carbon emissions, the energy supply chains to ensure the provisions of electricity, SAF and hydrogen will ultimately depend on the engagement of airports for their delivery and the infrastructure development needed.

'We recognize the value of sustainable aviation fuels'

Hassan El-Houry, Chairman of Menzies Aviation

As crucial players in the wider aviation value chain, airports, airlines and aviation services companies, like Menzies Aviation, have a unique ability to drive the sustainability agenda for the industry by encouraging the use of more sustainable fuels and limiting the carbon impact of airport operations.

Airports, airlines and aviation services providers must work together to play our collective part in decarbonising aviation. All progress is good and Menzies is leading the charge in our sector. We are focused on collaborating with all stakeholders to make a positive impact now and for the future.

As the world’s largest independent provider of into-plane fueling services and fuel farm management, we recognize the value of SAF as an immediate way to contribute towards decarbonising aviation. Governmental support will be crucial however in making SAF a more attractive option, as there currently are no cost-effective alternatives to fossil fuels.

That said, it is also important to prepare for a net-zero world. Doing so involves adapting our operations to minimise the amount of emissions created. At Menzies, we are committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2045 and to set near and long-term company-wide emission reductions aligned with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) Net-Zero Standard. Our All-In sustainability plan to make a positive difference in a changing world for our people, communities and the planet, outlines the various initiatives underway to achieve this goal. With Ground Service Equipment (GSE) representing the largest share of emissions for aviation services providers, Menzies has adopted an electric-first approach to new vehicles wherever possible across our global operations. This is more easily achieved in airport locations that have or are planning on implementing suitable infrastructure and charging points and is especially beneficial where those locations provide electricity from renewable sources.

Working with airports to improve upon existing infrastructure to draw new efficiencies will, therefore, be key moving forward. Nevertheless, we added nearly 200 electric GSE to our fleet in 2022 with many more delivered and on order for this year, as we work towards our goal of 25% of GSE to be electric by 2025.

'The decarbonisation of aviation is more urgent than ever'

Sami Jauhiainen, Acting Executive Vice President, Renewable Aviation, Neste

The decarbonisation of aviation is more urgent than ever but requires close cooperation between all stakeholders in the aviation ecosystem, including airlines, airports, fuel producers, corporates and governments. As an industry leader in SAF production and a frontrunner in sustainability, Neste has been supporting the work of the World Economic Forum to drive forward initiatives for aviation decarbonisation.

SAF is a key lever to decarbonise aviation and airports are uniquely positioned for supporting and encouraging its use across the globe. Airports can act as a catalyst in the transition to more sustainable flying.

SAF plays a vital role in reducing aviation-related emissions and Neste has been spearheading SAF production since 2011 when we delivered our first SAF to airlines. We recognized early on the key role airports can play as they are perfectly positioned for supporting and encouraging the use of SAF.

As part of our activities to support our aviation customers in achieving their climate targets, we are developing a global network of airports where we have the capability to supply SAF directly into aircraft using the existing fuel infrastructure. Several airports around the world are also using Neste’s renewable diesel for reducing emissions from the ground operations.

The most recent extension to our network of airports is Singapore’s Changi Airport where we have established an integrated SAF supply chain from our Singapore refinery, via a blending terminal, into the airport, following the increase of our global SAF production capability to 1 million tons per annum.

Meaningful action now, ambitious collaborations across value chains and urgent adoption of technologies like SAF – are all fundamental necessities for decarbonising the aviation industry and airports are uniquely positioned to ensure that tangible steps are made and the aviation industry can count on blue skies still ahead.

'We see the Airports of Tomorrow initiative as a critical endeavour'

Marc Hamy, Vice President, Head of Corporate Affairs, Airbus

Airbus is fully engaged in the net zero carbon emissions objectives in 2050 of the whole aviation sector, with innovative technologies, improved operations, sustainable aviation fuels and carbon removals. Working with all stakeholders on this objective is paramount for us.

We are closely working with airports, airlines and air navigation services on better operations and reducing emissions. We are also developing partnerships with airports to make them not only 'passenger hubs' but also 'energy hubs' able to deliver the new fuels (SAF and hydrogen) that will be central in the decarbonisation of air transport.

This is why we see the Airports of Tomorrow (AoT) initiative of the WEF as a critical endeavour. Airports are the backbone of the air transport system and this new initiative should be very helpful in furthering all the efforts already engaged and making swift progress towards the sector's decarbonisation journey.

The Airports of Tomorrow'Airports of Tomorrow is a critical initiative to accelerate the energy transition''The industry is facing an enormous challenge''We recognize the value of sustainable aviation fuels''The decarbonisation of aviation is more urgent than ever''We see the Airports of Tomorrow initiative as a critical endeavour'

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