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Airport Carbon Management is needed to Reach Net Zero by 2050

Airport Carbon Accreditation gives airports a set of achievable certification levels to help improve their sustainability. Airports’ ambition is clear, now that they have adopted the aviation industry’s latest sustainability target.

Airports have set strong climate goals to reduce their emissions in the coming decades. Yet, many are in the early phases of calculating their CO2 emissions. The time is now for sustainability managers in airports to move away from DIY spreadsheets and outdated data collection to accelerate greater CO2 emissions reductions.  

Airports’ ambition is clear, now that they have adopted the aviation industry’s latest sustainability target. In 2022, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) signed the Long-Term Aspirational Goal to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The aviation industry accounted for 2% of global carbon emissions in 2022. While this number may seem low compared to other industries, airports have significant leverage to help lower these emissions. Airports’ contribution is concentrated within a limited set of sites around the world, unlike other sprawling industries. They also have a significant role to play in supporting the development of sustainable jet fuel and optimizing the use of diverse modes of transportation. 

This is because airports act as central hubs of activity, providing the infrastructure that connects many different moving parts. Increasing demand from passengers and investors has created incentives to transform these highly visible interfaces for the aviation industry into sites of sustainability leadership. A global accreditation program designed specifically for airports could help them make a stronger impact. 

ACI Airport Carbon Accreditation program

The Airports Council International (ACI) Airport Carbon Accreditation program is the only global sustainability certification available for airports from a leading institution in the industry. It allows airports to demonstrate their carbon management credentials using an externally assured program that aligns with airports’ unique operations. Airports can earn recognition for their efforts through different levels of certification. 

History of the ACA program

While the Airport Carbon Accreditation program is relatively new to North America, sustainability in airports is not a new thing. In 2008, the ACI EUROPE created the first ever sector-wide climate action goal to reduce CO2 emissions in European airports with a long-term goal of carbon neutrality.

After this pledge, the regional ACI leadership launched its accreditation program to support their climate goals. By 2014, the program had achieved global adoption, expanding to North America. In 2017, it reached a milestone of certifying 200 airports around the world. The program continues to evolve with two new levels of accreditation added in 2020. With the new Net Zero by 2050 Goal, the program is likely to expand more rapidly. 

Levels of Airport Carbon Accreditation

The ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA) program meets airports where they’re at on their carbon emissions reduction journey with multiple levels of certification. The levels each lead toward deeper impact through airports’ dedication to sustainable management. 

North American airports are at the earlier stages of their ACI certification journey 67 certified airports compared to 290 in Europe, where the program began. These airports have shown strong ambition by leading the way for their peers. 

Of these 67 certified airports, the majority have been certified to the initial levels including mapping (28), reduction (17), optimization (15) versus the combined numbers for the higher neutrality, transformation, and transition levels (8). The challenge to further reduce emissions and achieve higher levels of certification is no easy task, but it puts them on track to meet aviation-wide climate goals. At Atrius, we help North American airports advance towards higher certification levels.

Here is a summary of the different levels:  

Level One: Mapping

In this level, airports must quantify their annual emissions and produce an inventory of their emissions sources. This level focuses only on Scope 1 (operational) and Scope 2 (purchased energy and fuel) emissions sources, so mapping can be completed within the first year of joining the ACA program. 

Level Two: Reduction

For the Reduction level, airports must create carbon management procedures and demonstrate carbon emissions reductions. During this level, airports must also set targets. Airports should produce year-over-year reports with reductions in their overall emissions versus the 3-year rolling average. 

Reduction strategies include reducing energy demand, transitioning to clean energy sources, lowering energy consumption, investing in electric or hybrid fleets, staff engagement plans, supply chain emissions examination, and more. 

Level Three: Optimization 

In the Optimization level, airports must broaden their carbon footprint to include Scope 3 value chain emissions for the most significant categories. These are the emissions that account for upstream and downstream activities undertaken for airports to perform their main functions. The specific categories of Scope 3 emissions required for this level include landing and take-off emissions, surface transportation to and from the airport for passengers and staff, business travel emissions for staff, and more. Stakeholder engagement with business relations, staff and customers through activities such as behavior change campaigns or Code of Conduct policies is a critical strategy for emissions reductions in this level.  

Level Three+: Neutrality 

Airports certified to the Optimization level can demonstrate their achievement of carbon neutrality through offsetting the remainder of their annual carbon footprint. Offsetting activities must follow efforts by an airport to reduce the majority of their emissions, using ACA guidance. 

Level Four: Transformation

The transformation level of ACA requires stronger commitments from airports towards an absolute emissions reduction goal aligned with the IPCC 1.5°C or 2°C pathways. This level also requires stronger commitments to stakeholder engagement.  Airports must set a policy goal and develop a Carbon Management Plan and Stakeholder Partnership Plan that align with their goal. 

Level Four+: Transition 

Airports that have met the Transformation level requirements can enhance their certification by offsetting their remaining Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions with high-quality offsets. 

2050 Outlook for Airports 

Achieving net zero is just one of three main trends that will shape how airports evolve over the next few decades. Technological innovation and passenger experience revolution are also contributing to major changes across airports. 

These trends can influence airports differently based on the function the airport serves. These functions break down into four main airport types: 

  • Global Hub Connector: Airports that connect passengers to their global destinations and serve a major region. 
  • City Airport: Centrally-located airports near an urban area, often serving business travelers or passengers traveling short distances. 
  • Cargo Champion: Airports that support logistics and moving goods from point A to point B. 
  • Leisure Gateway: Airports transporting passengers to and from a tourist destination or region. 

Whereas Global Hub Connectors may need to concentrate on optimizing flights and pursuing internal efficiency improvements, City Airports may focus more on pollution and their role in the metropolitan communities they serve. Cargo Champions obviously need to focus on technical innovations to deliver goods in a traceable, efficient manner, while Leisure Gateways have a strong concentration on providing a positive customer experience and delivering strong public-facing sustainability achievements.

Here are some of the changes the industry anticipates over the next few decades, according to the ACI’s report: The Evolution of Airports: Flight Path to 2050

Achieving Net Zero– Commercialize sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).- Electrify airport vehicle fleets.- Reduce airport energy consumption.- Invest in solar panels and other forms of renewable energy. – Achieve Net Zero for Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2045.- Achieve hydrogen fueled aircraft breakthroughs.- Noise reduction from electric propulsion.  – Airports become green energy power stations using carbon capture. – Building retrofits and new infrastructure will require investment to meet net-zero carbon standards. – Environmentally sustainable business models to ensure Net Zero. – Airports become energy producing hubs. 
Technological Innovation– Adoption of AI and Internet of Things (IoT) technology for core airport operations.- Digital twins simulate activities to support better decision-making. –  Biometrics replace travel documents. – Unmanned aerial drones in use. – Carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration (CCUS) technologies supplement SAF.  – Touchless digital ID cards replace passports and streamline security clearance and check-in. – Autonomous airport services increase the speed and quality of services. 
Passenger Experience– Increase in customized on-demand services. – Virtual queuing. – Virtual reality retail experiences available for testing products. – Fast tracked services for parking, wayfinding and security. – Airports become destinations. – Zero-queue terminals. – Personal devices help customers control their journey and experience. 

These interrelated changes require strong decision-making in airports that not only considers the costs and benefits of technological changes, but the overall strategic alignment with carbon emissions reduction goals. 

To manage these changes effectively and align with the accreditation levels set by the ACI, airports need a comprehensive technology platform for sustainability management. 

Choosing software with aviation expertise

As a long-standing partner of airports optimizing the passenger experience with Atrius Wayfinder, Atrius recently joined ACI as a corporate member aiming to collaborate across the industry to support its Net Zero by 2050 ambitions. Airports can leverage our carbon accounting and sustainability management software to adopt sustainability across the entire airport ecosystem.

Atrius is a Sustainability tool designed for time-strapped sustainability managers who are looking for an intuitive, robust platform for tracking and monitoring carbon emissions, energy, water, waste, and more. Our platform primes airports for success with carbon accounting functionality that follows GHG Protocol guidance. 

Sustainability managers can easily prepare sustainability reports using data from the platform, as it produces data that aligns with CDP, GRI, TCFD, and SASB. Our reporting platform also supports accurate project measurement and verification that meets the International Performance Measurement and Verification Protocol (IPMVP) standard. 

Most importantly, it supports airports through each level of certification outlined in the ACA approach: 

Mapping: Our self-serve configuration saves airports time when mapping their Scope 1 and 2 emissions. Our customer support teams simplify the data input process, helping users navigate our customizable self-serve configuration. The interface gives users the power to explore their data through visualizations that inform better decision-making. The intuitive platform also supports user independence through its embedded carbon emissions expertise, minimizing the need to rely on external consultants. 

Reduction: Atrius helps airports demonstrate their progress towards Scope 1 and 2 carbon reduction targets and verify sustainability projects planned and tracked in the platform. The software automates baseline measurements using existing data. Users can evaluate their emissions performance with near real-time consumption views and historical comparisons to easily identify areas for improvement. 

The program also allows users to drill down into their highest areas of impact in order to craft targeted reduction strategies. With an eye on their problem areas, airports can use the tool to monitor and report on progress. 

Optimization: Atrius supports flexible configurations for managing leased and tenanted building assets through our fully built integrations with building management systems and sub-meters. These features meet many of the Scope 3 emissions reporting needs of airports, as they often lease space to third parties. As airports build their stakeholder partnerships to align with their reporting goals, they can request data inputs from their third-party business relationships. Atrius also supports Scope 3 emissions reporting through industry-specific carbon emissions factors, allowing organizations to accurately calculate their Scope 3 emissions and report them using comparable data formats. 

Transformation: Airports can also engage multiple stakeholders through the use of intuitive storyboards and data presentation options for different audiences. These formats are highly engaging for everyone from senior executives to passengers learning about an airport’s sustainability in public-facing communications. 

Airports have everything they need to become adept at translating their energy and carbon emissions reduction strategies into action with Atrius.

Schedule a demo to test our unique Atrius Sustainability management features.  

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