Surveys have repeatedly shown that people consider climate change to be a top existential threat. One major Pew Research Centre poll, in 2017, asked 42,000 adults from 38 countries to prioritise eight categories of perceived threats to their country. These ranged from economic concerns to the Islamic State terrorist group. It found that, although concerns varied widely from region to region and from person to person, global warming nearly always ranked either first or second. Overall, climate change was listed as the top threat by the inhabitants of 13 of the countries surveyed, most of which were clustered in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. This means popular pressure is making tackling climate change a major priority for the world’s most polluting industries, even without the encouragement of governments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Mass transportation is a major polluter, but its component industries are striving to modernise. One such effort has resulted in the Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA), an independent, voluntary programme that certifies individual operators aiming for carbon neutrality. It is the brainchild of the European regional chapter of the Airports Council International, the federation that represents these groups worldwide, and it has won praise from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the European Commission. James Shearman, the head of sustainability at Bristol Airport, is proud that, in just four years, the airport has already managed to reach the second of the scheme’s four stages. Since starting to reduce emissions in line with the project’s principals in 2014, Shearman’s employer has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, in part thanks to numerous infrastructure overhauls.

“The achievement shows directly that the initiatives we put forward, be it new lighting schemes, more efficient drives, new baggage belt systems and so on, are providing energy savings,” Shearman says. “This is great from an internal point of view, and really does provide that muster and confidence around setting out goals, such as our carbon neutrality by 2030.”

Adapt to survive

While this process is expensive, nobody doubts that implementing higher standards now is vital for the future of airports and their related businesses. According to the New York Times, a single round-trip flight between New York and California presently emits about 20% of the greenhouse gases that the typical car does in a year. The paper estimates that around 20,000 aircraft are currently in use, a figure that is expected to rise to 50,000 by 2040, and one which conceals the fact that those future aircraft are also expected to fly more frequently.

Even today, the aviation industry burns through the equivalent of more than five million barrels of oil a day, generating a whopping 2.5% of all global carbon dioxide pollution. This is in addition to producing copious amounts of nitrogen oxides, soot and water vapour, all of which place their own additional burden on the planet’s climate. Fuel efficiency, though improving, has not been able to keep up with a sector for which global traffic has doubled roughly every 15 years since the 1970s, and where even regional players like Bristol confidently expect to be expanding over the next few decades. Although the long-term plan is still to be completely carbon-neutral by 2030, according to Shearman, implementing the ACA must be a flexible enough process to leave the door open to natural growth, so long as it is carefully calibrated.

“The scheme itself is quite fluid in that respect,” he says. “We’re able to still grow because you can use metrics against it. What that means is, as the airport grows, these indicators can be considered within the overall footprint, in absolute terms and in terms of key performance indexes.”

Indeed, Shearman’s proactive approach to managing his company’s individual pollution problem seems to be working. He quotes figures that indicate that, since 2014, the operation’s carbon footprint has been reduced by 6% in absolute terms, and fallen by 22% in terms of kilograms per passenger. Shearman credits working with numerous local stakeholders, from his institution’s airlines to the local parish councils, to help to achieve this speedy breakthrough. The local airlines were already seeking to reduce their carbon output (in terms of flights), as were other private companies, like Bristol’s ground handlers, which have particularly benefitted from Shearman’s introduction of fixed ground power to the site’s stands over the past few years, as well as from the introduction of electric vehicles in the airport’s ground fleet.

Plan ahead

As well as teaming up with other actors, he explains that long-term planning has been the key to a successful transition that combines natural growth with pollution management. Like many such enterprises, Shearman uses a comprehensive business plan to ensure the airport is always well prepared for future operations. To ensure a realistic understanding emerges, Shearman says that the organisation plots out its expenditure, including utility spend, over a range of different time periods, from the perspective of just five years to as far ahead as 20–30 years. This helps it to track its busy periods and learn what factors influence its electricity requirements over the long term.

“We would always seek to gain an idea of what our energy use is, as a site overall,” he says. “What we do is ask what kind of major developments are required in the short and medium term; and in the shorter term, begin looking at what is required as part of that development. This is where long-standing aims such as carbon management really come into their own, as we can suddenly provide detailed specs on what is expected in terms of low-carbon infrastructure, the use of embedded carbon for the materials used to build certain aspects of the airport, and show how we would monitor, measure and keep control of all our power usage as a result.”

Partially as a result of having to plan ahead so far, Bristol has worked hard to future-proof any projected new infrastructure, and to ensure that any older buildings coming up for renewal and replacement are updated with more energy-efficient technologies. Shearman stresses that it’s always important to have several different cost and design concepts for any new developments already prepared. He cites how his organisation integrated electric vehicles (EVs) into its operation as an example. When looking at EVs, Shearman’s team not only thought of how best to upgrade their own fleet, but then worked out where to establish the best spots to place charging points around the site and the nearby local area. Finally, they worked with others to ensure these spots would be multiuse fixtures, so they could be used by many different automobile designs (a useful idea given that EV use is increasing among the general population).

South-west synergy

Shearman adds that Bristol Airport also works with other airports, like Manchester, swapping tips on best practice with participants in the ACA. “We work quite closely with them on environmental matters,” he says. “Not just carbon, but also waste, air quality and other elements as well, and they have shown quite a keen interest in our approach to reduction, especially around the use of renewables. We have solar photovoltaic panels here on-site, and we share best practice on how we manage that, and how the upkeep and maintenance systems work. We have more direct conversations and dialogue with Manchester’s group, where they are a bit further ahead in terms of their ambitions for carbon neutrality under the scheme. So, we take lessons from them, but if there are any good areas that we are pushing, they also tend to pick up the phone and speak to me or my colleagues about it.”

Such efforts to standardise the most efficient forms of carbon management, as well as other types of pollution, reflect the way all modern industries are being incentivised to pool their insights into the problem. But Shearman says that decarbonisation has also required changes in Bristol Airport’s company culture in ways that go far beyond alterations to infrastructure in individual parts of the company’s operations. Such a shift also relies upon an evolution in mindset among individual workers on the ground. But Shearman seems confident that his staff are warming to the challenge of finding new ways to curb waste emissions. To push for more employee engagement, his team have staged profile raising activates, such as shutting-off runway lighting during this year’s Earth Hour in March, and have set up an employee forum, called People, Planet & Place, for ideas to be suggested and discussed. The process has already yielded fresh insights, such as the installation of another water fountain at the terminal for passengers to use, which has helped reduce plastic use and therefore waste transportation.

“From the start, our ultimate goal has been to improve the actual sign-off process for new initiatives,” Shearman explains. “We wanted to highlight green credentials as part of that process, including searching for new energy-saving methods. So, for example, water reduction provides benefits in terms of waste reduction as well, making its introduction potentially as useful an idea as many other more run-of-the-mill projects. Frankly, we’re not just trying to look at our power use anymore, but also the wider carbon effects of our operations.”

Bristol Airport: a growing transport hub

  • Bristol is the ninth-busiest airport in the UK, with direct flights operating to 126 destinations in 34 countries.
  • A record 951,973 passengers passed through it in August 2018.
  • Traffic during the summer reached over 1.8 million – a 6.7% increase on 2017.
  • Bristol Airport has taken on 100 new employees as a result of its rapid growth since the start of the year.

Source: Bristol Airport