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‘Flying is not the enemy, Carbon is’ - Recovery and Decarbonisation, the dual challenge facing airports

Author: Eleni Kaloyirou, Chief Executive Officer, Hermes Airports Ltd

Published: 23 Nov 2021

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Passenger demand at our Larnaca and Paphos airports in Cyprus, continues to be strong well into November and well past the traditional peak summer season.

This confirms that we have truly entered the recovery from the pandemic and even though uncertainty remains, barring any unforeseen events, this should lead us to 2019 passenger levels by 2023-2024, with further growth forecast from then on.

There is no question that the crisis unleashed by Covid-19 has hit the travel and tourism industries more than any other sector of the economy and the start of the recovery finds airports facing significant financial stress. At the same time there is renewed pressure to address the environmental impacts of our industry, particularly on climate change through decarbonisation, in order to reverse concerns on aviation’s societal acceptability and consequently secure our license not just to grow but also to continue operating.

Globe heart
Figure 1 – Extract from Hermes' Sustainability awareness campaign in 2021

The dual challenge

We talk about a dual challenge because decarbonisation requires investment at a time when airports are already financially weakened by the crisis, having added a lot of debt on their balance sheets during this period which needs to be repaid, and at the same time are faced with a cash intensive recovery, leaving little room for further investment. Despite that, airports recognise that they need to adapt their business model to ensure that they are able to keep investing in sustainability, digitalisation and capacity expansion. For airports there is no dilemma or choice between these challenges, both need to be addressed concurrently, because as ACI Europe Director General Olivier Jankovec stated at COP26 in Glasgow last week: “flying is not the enemy, carbon is. Air travel is part of our economic, cultural and human experience and it is incumbent upon us all to ensure that is continued sustainably. The airport industry leads the way in transforming our sector into one which will be truly fit for purpose for future generations.”.

Sustainability and Sustainable development

Sustainable Development, according to the Brundtland Commission, whose report on Environment and Development was published by the United Nations (“UN”) in 1987, is defined as: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

Sustainability as a concept means achieving a balance between the social, economic and environmental impacts of an activity. These three pillars of sustainable development are especially relevant to the aviation sector, “which is universally recognized as an essential component of the global economy and universal social progress, through its offering of a safe and efficient means of mass transportation1 as highlighted by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

The importance of travel and the significance of airports

The role of airports as critical infrastructure is key in the sustainable development of the local communities and destinations in which they are embedded. Airports provide essential connectivity services helping to generate and increase economic activity and in turn create jobs, investment and wealth in the areas or countries they serve.

Travel enables people to broaden their horizons by visiting new destinations, experiencing first-hand different cultures, cuisines, places, monuments etc. New experiences are particularly appealing to the younger generations who prefer these to spending money on acquiring goods. To quote ICAO again: “The democratization of air travel is one of the wonders of our age. Access to sustainable air transport must be guaranteed for future generations1.

At the same time travel and tourism are important for the destinations visited as they help to create jobs and support the economy, making significant contributions to a country’s GDP, especially where a country may have limited or no natural resources or other well developed industrial sectors. Air travel also acts as a lifeline for island countries like Cyprus or other countries with remote or mountainous regions which would otherwise be difficult or impossible to reach, enabling people to travel not only for leisure but also for business, to study, for medical reasons or to visit friends and relatives.

The climate emergency and decarbonisation

Whilst recognising the beneficial effects of our industry on the social and economic pillars of sustainable development, there is no doubt about its detrimental effects on the environment through carbon emissions. This is why decarbonisation is currently the number one challenge faced by the aviation industry which needs to be addressed urgently and concurrently with the recovery from Covid-19, despite the many challenges created by this crisis. It is important to take steps, in fact I should say to continue taking steps and, if anything, expedite them, for the decarbonisation of the industry, so that it can continue to operate and grow which in turn will enable it to continue offering those social and economic benefits.

Build Back Better – Sustainable and Green Airports of the Future

The airport industry has long championed the need to chart a course to Net Zero by not only taking tangible climate actions to address airports’ carbon emissions, but also by supporting the broader decarbonisation of the air transport sector. Airports are aligned with the Paris Agreement on climate change with a commitment to a Net Zero CO2 airport emissions goal by 2050 being made as early as 2019, to which 242 European airports have signed up. Ninety-four airports have already advanced this goal to Net Zero by 2030, including 10 that have already reached Net Zero today, with more expected to join over time.

ACI Europe launched its own Airport Carbon Accreditation programme twelve years ago and today, 180 European airports participate and have been certified to one of its levels. Recognising the need for actions towards decarbonisation to be both tangible and transparent, ACI Europe has recently created a Repository of Airports’ Net Zero Roadmaps where airports put forward their specific action plans towards achieving this goal. It has also introduced guidance on how airports can develop their Net Zero Carbon Roadmap with the stated aim of aiding all airports to set out on the path to Net Zero with an increasing body of evidence-based success to reference. Airports are also supporting and facilitating the decarbonisation of the whole aviation sector by planning and implementing necessary infrastructure changes at their facilities.

Net Zero
Figure 2 - ACI General Assembly and Congress June 2019

Decarbonisation will enable sustainable development and recovery

Sustainable development of course is more than decarbonisation, even though this is the immediate and more pressing challenge, along with the recovery from Covid-19. Ensuring the industry’s decarbonisation will give airports the ability to continue operating and growing, which in turn will enable them to continue offering social and economic benefits to local and global communities.

Airports, through being sustainable businesses can contribute to creating more cohesive and resilient societies, making them better equipped to withstand major environmental, economic and social pressures in a fast-changing world. This in turn preserves the foundations of a prosperous world for future generations.

Globe
Figure 3 - Extract of Hermes' Sustainability marketing campaign

*The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW

Sources

1. https://www.icao.int/environmental-protection/Documents/RIO+20_booklet.pdf
2. ACI Europe-Sustainability Strategy for Airports (1st Edition June 2019, 2nd Edition November 2020)
3. Airports Council International Europe | ACI EUROPE - Press Release (aci-europe.org) COP26:” A decarbonized future for aviation is now emerging” says airport industry-ACI Europe Press release 10/11/2021
4. Hermes Airports Sustainability Awareness campaign-March 2021