Climate Action

This is how the Airports of Tomorrow are tackling carbon emissions

Business man with luggage waiting in the airport: Airports of Tomorrow have hydrogen infrastructure in their sights.

Airports of Tomorrow have hydrogen infrastructure in their sights. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Alejandro De Quero Cordero
Infrastructure Lead, Airports of Tomorrow, World Economic Forum
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  • While airports are busy reducing Scope 1 and 2 emissions directly under their control, a significant part of their long-term strategy involves integrating sustainable aviation fuels to tackle Scope 3 emissions – those along their value chains.
  • Several airports have adopted comprehensive electrification strategies to reduce carbon emissions, including airports in Dubai, Rome and Sofia.
  • Hydrogen as a fuel source would be a significant step towards sustainable air travel. Airports are exploring the feasibility of hydrogen infrastructure, which requires substantial clean energy resources.

Accelerating aviation decarbonization will be one of the most critical challenges in the coming years and airports are ready to shape a sustainable future. Regardless of size or location, many airports globally have started to develop decarbonization roadmaps that address short, medium and long-term sustainability goals, working towards different levels of certification under the Airports Council International ACA scheme.

In the short term, airports should evaluate their current carbon footprint to establish a science-based decarbonization strategy, pinpointing immediate actions to reduce emissions directly under their control – Scope 1 and 2 emissions – which account for around 3% of all airport emissions.

Airports' Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.
Airports' Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. Image: World Economic Forum

While focusing on Scope 1 and 2, airports can also facilitate the scaling of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), which will be increasingly important to tackle their Scope 3 emissions until zero-emission propulsion matures in the longer term.

The aim is for SAFs to constitute an essential part of the fuel mix, supported by regulatory mandates such as the European Union’s requirement for aircraft to use at least 2% SAF by 2025, escalating to 6% by 2030 and 70% by 2050.

Looking towards the long term, the challenge intensifies as airports strive to address Scope 3 emissions, which include upstream and downstream emissions, covering those not directly controlled by the airports (suppliers and consumers). Alternative propulsion technologies such as hybrid-electric, electric-powered and hydrogen flight are anticipated to play a significant role (up to 15% greenhouse gas reduction by 2050) and airports can already start preparing the ground for these technologies.

Airports are going electric

Several leading airports have adopted electrification of airport operations as an innovative strategy to reduce carbon emissions.

In the United Arab Emirates, Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 2 has installed the largest solar energy system in the region, featuring 15,000 photovoltaic panels; this is roughly equivalent to the size of three football pitches. The rooftop solar park currently provides 29% of the terminal’s electricity needs and the airport plans to expand that further.

Italy’s Rome-Fiumicino Airport has also developed a comprehensive electrification strategy, which includes large photovoltaic plants with a capacity of 60 megawatts of clean energy. That not only significantly reduces the airport’s carbon footprint but also sets a high standard in airport sustainability practices.

Ground handling and end-user operations at the airport are also essential for the daily business. Sofia Airport in Bulgaria is transitioning to electric mobility for its ground-handling fleet by planning to replace all its vehicles with climate-neutral alternatives. The airport has integrated 34 electric or hybrid vehicles and is deploying 22 charging stations to support this shift, enhancing the grid infrastructure needed for electric vehicles.

Similarly, Rome-Fiumicino is going to install 500 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations in the passenger parking lots and introduced a 10 megawatt/hour storage system using second-life car batteries, optimizing energy use and promoting a circular economy.

These efforts provide a replicable model for airports worldwide, demonstrating the feasibility and benefits of comprehensive decarbonization strategies in the aviation industry. They highlight the increased need for electricity at airports and the opportunity to generate this directly on site where land or roof space is available.

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Scope 3 in airport emissions

But what else can airports do? SAF is pivotal in curbing Scope 3 emissions, yet airports alone cannot achieve this transformation. Scaling SAF adoption effectively requires a collaborative effort that includes airlines, SAF producers, passengers and policymakers.

Airports can catalyze this expansion by leveraging their relationships with fossil fuel suppliers to facilitate SAF blending and storage. In addition, SAF presents an opportunity for airports to close the circularity loop by providing raw materials for the production of renewable fuels as piloted by Dallas-Fort Worth.

Additionally, innovative approaches such as SAF incentive funds have emerged, where airports help mitigate the cost disparity between SAF and conventional jet fuels for airlines. These funds, which cover a proportion of the green premium, can be financed through various sources. There is also an increasing trend towards looking at passengers to cover parts of the green premium. Initially through voluntary systems, airports such as Changi are introducing a compulsory passenger levy for all its departing flights.

Airports, frequently under government ownership, are also crucial in enforcing regulations such as landing charges and blending fees. In some regions, airports are testing, on a voluntary basis more stringent measures than national standards. As an example, Rotterdam-The Hague is setting an 8% blending mandate by 2030, above the 6% from ReFuelEU.

Furthermore, airports are unique convergence points for stakeholders across the aviation and energy sectors. They can leverage this position to launch passenger information campaigns, foster sector partnerships and spearhead research to enhance SAF usage. These strategies are adaptable and could also support the future deployment of other technologies, such as hydrogen.

The role of hydrogen

The integration of hydrogen as a fuel source marks a significant step towards sustainable air travel. However, this could require between 600 and 1,700 TWh of clean energy by 2050, globally – equivalent to the energy generated by around 10-25 of the world’s largest wind farms or a solar farm the size of Belgium.

Countries with vast natural resources and potential for hydrogen production from renewable sources could be strategic locations for a hydrogen-based aviation industry. Yet, airports will need to conduct feasibility studies to provide insights into hydrogen aircraft concepts, operations, supply, infrastructure and refuelling needs, which is essential for developing a robust hydrogen aviation ecosystem across the different regions.

Airports worldwide are keen to understand what hydrogen infrastructure will imply for them in terms of investment and business opportunity. In the last ACI World Assembly, airports globally emphasized the need for unified global approaches to aviation decarbonization, including ensuring a sufficient supply of green energy to airports and incentivizing climate adaptation and mitigation infrastructure development through appropriate financial mechanisms.

Lately, there have been many collaborations between aircraft manufacturers, airports and airlines that aim to explore the feasibility of hydrogen infrastructure needed at airports, such as the latest agreement between Airbus and Toronto Pearson International Airport.

However, assessing the impact of alternative propulsion on airport operations implies identifying natural partners in the green energy ecosystem and integrating alternative propulsion infrastructure into investment and operational planning.

Discover

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help aviation meet net zero goals?

Airports are pivotal in the global shift towards sustainable aviation, adopting multi-stakeholder strategies to reduce emissions and align with their net zero goals. Their proactive initiatives in SAF usage, electrification, and potential hydrogen integration underscore their critical role in unlocking greener flights.

National and regional regulatory bodies, as well as the development of standards (for instance, on hydrogen refuelling at airports), will play a crucial role in supporting the widespread adoption of this new multi-fuel future.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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