Heathrow sets out long-term vision of a zero carbon airport and creating a centre of sustainability excellence
Thu 9 Mar 2017 - Although we’re passionate about the environment, we weren’t previously punching our weight, admitted Heathrow Airport’s Executive Director Expansion Emma Gilthorpe at the unveiling last week of Heathrow 2.0, a self-styled bold and ambitious long-term sustainability strategy for the airport. The UK government has signalled its support for major expansion and a third runway but there are still considerable challenges for the airport, not least over environmental and climate change concerns. Goals set out in the plan include becoming carbon neutral by 2020 and a zero emissions airport by 2050; all flights serving the airport by the time of the new runway opening in the middle of the next decade to be subject to the global CORSIA carbon-neutral growth scheme; and creating a Centre of Excellence for aviation sustainability research and innovation.
Gilthorpe insisted work on the Heathrow 2.0 strategy started well before the government granted its approval for a third runway last October.
“We are one of the world’s biggest international airports and while we were doing a lot of incremental work on the environment, it hadn’t really translated into a solid action plan,” said Gilthorpe, who recently moved from strategy planning to head up Heathrow’s expansion team. “A year ago we decided to move away from what was a three-year planning horizon on sustainability to something more long-term. Up to that point, we had focused heavily on noise and air quality but not on some of the more national and global issues, such as around carbon.”
She related how she and top Heathrow executives had visited leaders of other major UK companies that were leading the way on sustainability to understand how they were dealing with the challenge.
“We got two key messages. One was ‘be bold’. You may not be clear how you’re going to get there but it is important you set out a bold ambition of where you want to get to. The other is to know what is your particular purpose in doing this.
“We came quickly to a conclusion that what sets us apart from other big organisations is that we are very geographically focused, with a single footprint. So a big part of our sustainability plan is to focus on a local agenda – how we can be a better neighbour, how we can be a great place to work and live around.
“Beyond that though, while the local agenda is very important, we also need to acknowledge the impact we had nationally and globally.”
Heathrow’s Sustainability Director, Matt Gorman, rebutted criticism that Heathrow 2.0 is a series of short-term goals to win over expansion opponents. “I challenge you to find any other airport that has set out a long-term plan as deep and as broad as this,” he said. “Some of it is short-term but the plan is full of targets that go well beyond 2030 and on through to 2050.”
He said there was an increasingly sound business case for moving towards a zero-carbon airport through investing in renewables. A start will be made on this major centrepiece of the sustainability plan next month when the airport’s fixed infrastructure is to be powered entirely by purchased offshore wind renewable electricity from offsite sources through the Renewables Obligation scheme. The airport has a 2020 milestone target of a 30% reduction in carbon emissions against a 1990 baseline, with further milestone targets to be developed during 2017.
Minimising energy consumption and maximising on-site renewables required long-term business planning and continued investment, explained Gorman.
“We have a great track record of cutting energy use over many years,” he said. “There will be great opportunities in the future with the new expansion programme and there are some very exciting concepts we are looking at. For example, we want to see how close we can get to a zero-energy terminal.
“We already have London’s largest biomass combined heating and power plant, which supplies 20% of Terminal 2’s needs from sustainable woodchip sourced with 75 miles of the airport. We also have some solar power but making a real dent in renewable generation on-site will take another decade or so.”
To achieve carbon neutral status from 2020 will therefore require offsetting Heathrow’s own emissions that it cannot mitigate itself, and the airport is exploring the possibility of using credits generated by peatland restoration in the UK.
“Peatland is about 12% of the UK’s surface area, so it’s significant, and 80% of that is degraded. We know there is a chunk of that which is readily available to be restored,” said Gorman. “When peat bogs dry out, they release carbon into the atmosphere. It could be a cost-effective way of offsetting carbon.”
He believes there is a possibility for credits from a UK-based scheme to be eligible under the ICAO CORSIA global offsetting scheme in the future, and he said the airport would publish detailed plans sometime this year.
As the only airport to join a number of pioneering airlines that set up the Aviation Global Deal Group in early 2009 to develop a global policy for tackling aviation emissions, Heathrow has had more than a passing interest in the emergence of the ICAO scheme.
No more than an aspiration at this point, as it requires a buy-in by all airlines serving the airport, Heathrow will attempt to have full carbon-neutral growth operations from the time the third runway opens in around 10 years’ time. By then, in 2027, the scheme will have moved from the voluntary to a mandatory phase, so most flights to and from Heathrow should be covered. However, Gorman pointed out that from initial forecasts it has done, some 8% of the traffic growth will come from flights to the least developed countries and small island states permanently exempted from the scheme.
How to ensure the net increase in emissions is offset from flights after the third runway opens is unclear, admitted Gorman. “We don’t have all the answers but we still think it’s the right thing to put the aspiration out there,” he said. “We think CORSIA has a solid foundation that covers most of the emissions but the job now is to work with our airline customers, our regulator [the UK CAA] and government to see how we can make it happen.
“One of the advantages of the runway opening time is that we have nearly a decade to work out the answers to some of these challenging questions.
“As an example, a decade ago many would have laughed at the idea of sustainable aviation fuels – it was a pipe dream and now look where we are. Look also at the very slow progress ICAO was making 10 years ago on a global market-based measure, and now we have an international agreement, partly as a result of the strong advocacy of UK airlines and ourselves.
“We expect to be held to account on this and we intend to publish a detailed roadmap on how we can move towards the aspiration.
“We can do a lot in this sector – for example, using sustainable fuels, cleaner aircraft, more efficient operations and changes to airspace design – but it is a fact that the costs of cutting carbon are generally higher than for other sectors, so there is a point where it is cheaper for aviation to pay for cuts in other sectors. The enemy is not air travel, the enemy is carbon. The challenge is to get rid of carbon from the global economy in the cheapest possible way.
“Understandably, people say we are a growing source of emissions at a time when emissions in the UK economy are generally coming down. We have to confront that and we see it as a long-term ‘permission to operate’ issue for us.”
Gilthorpe sees other opportunities to incentivise airlines to lower carbon emissions from Heathrow flights such as through landing charges related to age and fuel efficiency of aircraft. The airport also plans to develop ‘green slots’ for the new runway and establish infrastructure projects for the supply of sustainable aviation fuels to aircraft.
On the ground, Heathrow currently owns 400 vehicles and expects all small cars and vans to be all-electric by 2020. There around 8,000 ground vehicles operating within the airport fence and the aim is for airside vehicles to comply with ultra-low emission standards by 2025. Heathrow is also targeting zero waste generation by 2050 and for all the water used at the airport to come from sustainable sources by the same year.
The airport is also planning to extend its Fly Quiet noise performance table for airlines, which it launched in late 2013, to include air pollution from aircraft, such as NOx emissions. Gorman said ICAO aircraft standards on local air quality would play a part in the metrics, details of which are now being finalised. Operational practices such as single engine taxiing would be one of the metrics, he said. The programme will be called Fly Quiet and Clean.
The noise performance table had been an effective tool in changing airline behaviour at the airport, reported Gorman.
“Airlines were nervous in the beginning about being ranked but now they regard the table very positively,” he said. “When we first published it, we had a whole host of conversations with airlines who wanted to know why they weren’t higher up the table.
“There was one airline that many would consider very green but was low down the table. It was partly about the type of aircraft they were using on Heathrow routes, so they switched over to newer, quieter aircraft and now they are much higher in the table.
“Another had a low score on continuous descent approaches (CDAs). They wanted to know how to improve and we worked very closely with them, and now they are one of the best performers.”
Another major initiative that Heathrow considers will set itself apart from other airports is a plan to set up a Centre of Excellence for sustainability at airports and in the wider aviation sector. A vision for the Centre is still being formulated and further plans will be revealed later this year but Heathrow has already committed £500,000 ($600,000) in seed funding and plans for it to be launched by 2019.
The airport wants to involve academic institutions – it already has relationships with Imperial College, Brunel University and Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK – and also companies involved in aircraft and engine manufacturing, sustainable aviation and ground transport fuels, and even electric car manufacturers. Heathrow would also like to collaborate with other airports, even those outside the UK, in supporting research on, say, noise impacts. Another aim is to create a funding awards scheme specifically targeting SMEs and entrepreneurs with ideas for clean technologies.
So how many of the numerous initiatives announced in the Heathrow 2.0 plan would happen if the airport had been refused a third runway? “There are some things in there that we couldn’t have done unless we were expanding,” said Gilthorpe.
“There are many organisations like ours around the UK that are going through this process of trying to understand what it means to be a responsible business.
“While expansion can give us momentum in certain areas, ultimately I don’t see how you can be a business like ours without having a clear plan. This is something over which we want to be held to account for many years to come.”