While airlines pay for pollution, airports fly in a different class

Researchers found that improving the efficiency of heating and cooling at airports can slash energy use and carbon emissions. [Aeroporti di Roma]

This article is part of our special report Le Bourget 2015.

SPECIAL REPORT / Today’s passenger aircraft are becoming ever more efficient, driven by regulations like the EU’s emissions trading scheme and airlines looking to squeeze profit out of every drop of fuel saved.

Yet on the ground, airports operate in a different class. New findings from a European Union-funded research project show that commercial airports use as much energy as a small city, and up to one-fifth of that may be wasted.

Aircraft operating within the EU, along with energy and industrial sectors, fall under the Emissions Trading System that aims to cut emissions. While an EU law (Regulation 598) on regulating airport noise is due to take effect in a year, there is no similar EU legislation on emissions, and some political leaders want to change that.

Sergi Alegre Calero, the vice-mayor of El Prat de Llobregat, home to Barcelona’s airport, is one of them. Alluding to the ETS and other pollution laws, he says: “It has happened in the car industry, it’s going to happen in the shipping industry, it’s happening in building and construction, so [airports] cannot get out of that.”

Calero is president of the Airport Regions Conference (ARC), which represents European municipalities close to international airfields. He favours an EU mandate to cap airport emissions, though he says the legislation should give airfield operators and communities leeway in how they comply.

Going green

Aviation contributes 2 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, and airports are believed to account for about 5 percent of that figure. Even in the absence of EU-wide mandates, many of the EU’s busiest airports have already taken steps to reduce their environmental footprint.

The Airports Council International’s Europe operation, which represents 450 fields in 45 countries, has voluntary standards aimed at slashing the environmental impact of ground operations. The group identifies 20 European airports carbon-neutral.

They’ve achieved this partly through operational improvements for aircraft, switching to hybrid and electric service fleets, improving public transport links and providing terminal-to-aircraft power links so planes don’t have to use on-board generators while parked at gates.

Olivier Jankovec, director general of the Airports Council International in Europe and Angela Gittens, worldwide director of ACI, said in a recent joint statement on airports certified by its Airport Carbon Accreditation programme: “An impressive 1.67 billion air passengers now travel through airports certified at one of the 4 levels of the programme – equivalent to 26.5 percent of global air passenger traffic. Most promisingly we are seeing a lot of airports moving up the levels of the programme – making real progress in the way they manage their carbon footprints.”

But a new study suggests that airports also waste significant amounts of energy, and by taking relatively inexpensive steps, they could save money, cut energy consumption and reduce emissions.

The EU-CASCADE energy project study focused only on heating and cooling systems, the biggest single energy consumer at an airport.

Researchers working at airports in Milan and Rome found that up to 20 percent of energy is wasted either through poor maintenance or inefficient use of climate control systems, such as heating or cooling vast terminals during times when there are few passengers, and pumping heat and cold air into terminals at the same time.

The project team from Germany, Italy, Ireland and Serbia installed hundreds of advanced sensors and meters at Malpensa and Fiumicino airports to monitor temperature, pressure and power consumption as part of their research.

Mike Brogan, the chief operating officer of the Enerit energy firm in Ireland that is part of the project team, said that in addition to reducing energy use that contributes to emissions, there are “large potential savings” at big airports – he estimates up to €500,000 annually for heating and cooling alone.

Brogan said making airports more energy efficient has inherent challenges because of exceptional security and safety requirements under which they operate. Still, the CASCADE research suggests that there may be additional areas for savings beyond heating and cooling.

“Although such critical transportation infrastructure has to operate according to the highest safety and security regulations, resulting in special requirements when it comes to lighting, it is often a case that lighting is operated wastefully without actual necessity,” Professor Sanja Vraneš, director general of the Institute Mihajlo Pupin in Belgrade, told EURACTIV in an e-mail.

Improving energy management and “smart lighting” “would unlock enormous energy/cost saving potential” without major investment. “A significant part of the solution would be also in the design of airports, allowing them to harvest as much as possible of renewable energy and natural light,” she said.

“We are not targeting the whole airport infrastructure,’ said CASCADE coordinator Nicolas Réhault, who heads the building performance optimization group at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg, Germany. “Our objective is to save 20 % energy on these targeted systems by optimizing savings and with the knowledge we gain we then want to replicate the solution at other airports.”

Airports at London, Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam rank among the world’s 20 busiest in passenger volume and air traffic grew steadily last year, according to the Airports Council International’s quarterly Preliminary World Airport Traffic and Rankings.

Eurocontrol, the multinational civil-military air traffic management and safety organisation, forecasts that the number of flights will grow at an annual 2.7% clip starting in 2015, while the 2008 peak of 10.1 million flights expected to be reached again in 2016 in the 28 EU states plus 12 other Eurocontrol participating countries.

Transport accounts for 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and is growing despite efficiencies, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The Air Transport Action Group in Geneva estimates that the global aviation industry produces around 2 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, and accounts for 12 percent of CO2 emissions from overall transportation sources. The Airports Council International estimates that airports contribute account for about 5% of the aviation industry’s carbon emissions.

  • 15-21 June: Paris Air Show
  • 13 June 2016: EU regulation on airport noise takes effect

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