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Airport sustainability? Carbon accounting explained

Dr Sam Phua

By Willow Aliento

25 February 2014 — Some of Australia’s major airports are vying for sustainability with their design, construction and energy-efficiency initiatives. However, the litmus test for true carbon footprint reduction is much tougher, according to Australia’s only accredited Airport Carbon Accreditation auditor, Dr Sam Phua with Brisbane based Pangolin Associates.

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“The definition of carbon neutrality for an airport comes down to whether they offset all residual emissions as required under various programs such as the National Carbon Offset Standard or the international Airport Carbon Accreditation program,” Dr Phua said.

“For example, if claims of carbon neutrality are made under the ACA, they have justification to do so after offsetting all residual emissions and completing an independent verification.”

Dr Phua said there was potential for airlines that had committed to carbon minimisation electing to preference routes that involved airports accredited under the international ACA standard.

So which airports will be most attractive?

Under this scenario, Adelaide International Airport, Adelaide Parafield Airport and the Sunshine Coast Airport are potentially the most attractive in carbon management terms to airlines, as all three have achieved level one accreditation under the ACA.

What’s involved?

Level one accreditation involves the mapping of an airport’s carbon footprint, including terminal energy use, vehicle emissions (including staff vehicle use for travel to and from work), emissions from waste and visitor emissions.

Level two commits an airport to then taking management and minimisation actions, in order to reduce the carbon footprint. In the Asia Pacific region, Mumbai Airport in India is the only airport to be accredited for level two out of 510 airports in the region’s 96 Airport Carbon Accreditation member countries.

At level three, an airport is committed to optimisation activities, a level which Hong Kong International Airport and three of India’s international airports – Bangalore, Delhi and Hyderabad – have committed to.

Because the emission of carbon is intrinsic to an airport’s operation – planes can’t fly without combusting hydrocarbons – the level four goal of carbon neutrality is achieved by purchasing carbon offsets for the optimised carbon footprint.

In Australia, this can happen through either the international ACA or the NCOS program.

“ACA is very specific about what airports must account for,” Dr Phua said.

You can’t fly and not generate emissions

“An airport doesn’t have control over the specific way a plane generates emissions including emissions from flying in or taking off [which contributes to the takeoff/landing carbon emission figure],” Dr Phua said.

What they can do, however, is to work together to measure and reduce emissions.

“While an airport may use green materials for construction, from a construction/infrastructure point of view, it is when we consider the complete lifecycle that those green materials demonstrate their importance.

“To say an airport is ‘sustainable’ is [sometimes] treading a very thin line. It needs to be put into the context of ‘what do they mean by sustainable?’ Sustainability is a broad term… and ‘green’ doesn’t only mean participation in the ACA program.”

Dr Phua is currently working with Adelaide and Parafield airports to verify the data for the airports’ overall emissions footprint down to the last detail of security lights left on in the car park overnight. This will form the benchmarks against which further levels of ACA accreditation will be measured.

He pointed out that it is not meaningful to “average” carbon emissions from airports, as the scale of emissions varies depending on an airport’s size, passenger numbers, flight numbers and infrastructure.

Essentially, any airport’s carbon performance can only be measured against its own data, and then benchmarked against standards for comparable items to develop management, minimisation and optimisation strategies.

In terms of the role airports, air travel and air freight play in the global picture of climate change, Dr Phua is unequivocal.

“Air travel is one of the more carbon-intensive approaches to travel, so for me, the aviation sector is a start in terms of reducing carbon footprints which will help to address climate change. I believe in climate change; carbon emissions contribute to climate change, and I do believe action needs to be taken,” he said.

“If airports are showing they understand the carbon intensity of their operations, freight and air travel, then it gives people an idea of how they can look at their own carbon footprint. Airports can be a baseline for giving people an understanding of carbon emissions and energy.”

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