Paris climate summit: aviation sector discusses how to clean up its act

With a combined carbon footprint the size of a developed nation, the aviation sector must play a vital role in achieving emissions targets. At the all-important UN climate summit in Paris, industry delegates discussed the role that airports can play – particularly with certification schemes and the development of carbon-neutral facilities – in the global drive to decarbonise.


Elephants in the room

At COP21 in Paris, much has been made of the aviation sector's role in climate change. The industry is responsible for approximately 2% of worldwide CO2 emissions, and the European Commission estimates that by 2020, international aviation emissions could be 70% higher than in 2005. With these statistics in mind, the European airport industry has pledged to increase the number of carbon-neutral airports to 50 by 2030.

The bold plan was decided upon during the presentation of the Airport Carbon Accreditation programme - an independent initiative that enforces accreditation criteria for airports on an annual basis - on 2 December.

Airports Council International (ACI) Europe president and CEO of Aéroports de Paris Augustin de Romanet said: "Europe's airports are fully behind the objective of keeping global warming below 2°C, and they are urging states to come to a global, robust and legally binding agreement in Paris.

"Throughout Europe and beyond, airports are effectively working to mitigate and reduce their own impact on climate change."

Launched in 2009, the Airport Carbon Accreditation programme certifies airports on
"mapping, reduction, optimisation and neutrality". Its airport carbon accredited status has been given to 137 airports worldwide in the past year, representing 31% of global passenger traffic.

The overall aim is to "manage, reduce and ultimately neutralise airports' carbon footprint" - a difficult but essential task, according to de Romanet.

"For airports, carbon management is as much about being at the forefront of corporate and social responsibility as it is about business continuity," he added.

"Climate change poses a significant risk to the airport industry. Changes in rainfall, temperature variations, sea-level rise, changes in wind patterns - all of these have potentially severe implications for our industry, for the wider air transport sector and for European connectivity."

'An elephant in the room'

The news has been welcomed by Transport & Environment, a campaign group for smarter, greener transport in Europe, but more needs to be done, according to the organisation's aviation officer Andrew Murphy.

"This is an important goal and recognition of the links between aviation and climate change," he says.

"However, nearly all of aviation's emissions take place during flight, and these emissions remain unregulated. The Paris agreement must close this gap."

Discussions at COP21 have produced similar warnings from other environmental experts, namely that aviation must not be allowed to continue on a 'business as usual' trajectory.

Dubbed an 'elephant in the room' - alongside shipping - Murphy has warned that without serious change, aviation will be an obstacle to the UN's objective of limiting global warming to between 1.5 and 2°C.

Estimates from Transport & Environment suggest that emissions from shipping and aviation increased by 80% between 1990 and 2010.

"If this trend [of rising emissions] continues, it will undermine the efforts of countries and other economic sectors," Murphy told The Irish Times.

Transport & Environment states that if global aviation were a country, it would be ranked 7th between Germany and South Korea, on CO2 emissions alone. The group has also called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to set realistic emissions reduction targets consistent with the UN 1.5 to 2°C target.

Such a statement underlines the need for robust action. And while the drive for more carbon-neutral airports is a step in the right direction, there is a general feeling that the sector needs to enact deep-rooted changes, or at least meaningful targets, if it is to play its necessary role in mitigating the effects of climate change.