Top 10 net-zero strategies from the world’s busiest airports

From waste reduction to energy efficiency, the world’s busiest airports are rolling out innovative sustainability strategies in the race to net zero

There is no doubting the significant impact of aviation on the environment.

Accounting for around 3% of total global carbon emissions, the industry has committed to a 2050 carbon-neutral goal – but challenges persist.

Amid the complex environmental challenge of cutting emissions in the air, one section of the aviation industry has turned out to be a leading light in sustainability – airports.

While these travel hubs operate with energy-intensive demands, many have rallied in recent years to reduce their carbon footprint, conserve energy, and further support the wider community.

From embracing energy-efficient technologies and introducing waste-reduction programmes to electrifying ground fleets and giving back to the community – some of the world’s largest and busiest airports are implementing creative and ambitious strategies as they look to become among the world’s greenest airports.

1

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol

Country: The Netherlands

World’s busiest airports: 13th

Net Zero emissions target: 2030

Despite being the world’s 13th busiest airport, with 52.4 million people passing through in 2022, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol has set itself ambitious goals – and is on track to achieve this.

Denise Pronk, Head of Sustainability at Royal Schiphol Group, which owns three Dutch airports including Schiphol, says the Group is continuing to work towards emission-free and zero-waste airports in 2030.

And by 2050, it aims to operate the most sustainable airport in the world and be a circular and energy-positive company. It will run entirely on sustainable solar, wind, and thermal energy and will generate more energy than it will use, with the surplus going to other consumers. What's more, all buildings will be built in a circular fashion and it will run only on electric vehicles.

For its efforts to date, Schiphol was recently awarded the highest level for sustainability by the ACI, making it among the first 10 airports to reach this world-leading level – largely thanks to its achievement in reducing CO2 emissions in 2022 by 90% or more compared to 2010.

As well as working to make aviation more sustainable, the airport runs entirely on Dutch wind power – and the terminal and its buildings are gradually being taken off the gas grid. Among the Group’s energy-saving strategies – LED lighting, energy-efficient equipment, and a cogeneration plant.

The Group has also laid out a future-looking vision to create fully autonomous airside operations by 2050 – a programme that will see all airside vehicles replaced by an interconnected fleet of autonomous, emission-free vehicles and all associated processes will be automated.

Visionary too in its approach to providing good working conditions for staff, Schiphol is installing 19 Collaborative Baggage Robots (COBROs) to take over the physically demanding part of baggage handling.

The airport has earmarked €3 billion on maintenance and upgrades from 2024 to 2027 to meet its sustainability ambitions, including transitioning to electric ground equipment and improving power supply and climate control systems.

2

Denver International Airport

Country: United States

World’s busiest airports: 3rd

Net zero emissions target: 2040

The world’s third busiest airport, with 69 million passengers in 2022, and the primary economic engine for the state of Colorado, generating more than US$36 billion for the region annually – Denver International Airport (DEN) has also been a model for energy efficiency since opening in 1995.

But when CEO Phil Washington arrived at DEN in 2021, he made sustainability a key component of Vision 100, the strategic plan designed to enable the airport to serve 100 million annual passengers.

With plans to become one of the greenest airports in the world, DEN unveiled its five-year plan the same year, with an aim to achieve the ambitious goals established by the City of Denver: reducing GHG emissions by 65% by 2030 and 100% by 2040 and achieving 100% renewable electricity by 2030.

For the last 15 years, the airport has committed to only projects that are designed and constructed to LEED Gold standard, with five under its belt, including the country’s only LEED Platinum on-airport hotel, which sits directly above an electrified commuter rail that transports passengers to and from downtown Denver.

Renovations to The Great Hall are tracking to become LEED credentialed too thanks to drawing on natural daylight, high efficiency heating and cooling equipment.

The airport is home to one of the largest and most diversified solar energy programmes of any airport in the world, including Community Solar Gardens, solar purchasing agreements, and hosting four solar arrays that directly interconnect to DEN’s electric metres.

Added to this is the airport’s industry-leading stormwater management system, which collects an average of 70% of the de-icing fluid applied to aircraft each winter season. Currently under construction, a new glycol recycling facility will recycle spent glycol to a level that allows it to be remanufactured into de-icing fluid and reapplied to aircraft in a closed loop.

The airport is also implementing deep energy and water retrofits across its exiting airport facility, from LED lighting upgrades to water reduction across restrooms; is transitioning to EVs and installed charging stations; and is scaling its concessionaire compost collection programme which has reached 20 tonnes per month.

The airport is also working on ceasing oil and gas operations at the airport, with the successful capping of 64 oil and gas wells across airport property this summer.

3

Delhi International Airport

Country: India

World’s busiest airports: 9th

Net zero emissions target: 2030

One of the world’s top 10 busiest airports and the busiest in India, hosting more than 70 million passengers a year, Delhi International Airport (DIAL) also known as Indira Gandhi International Airport, is laser-focused on shifting its environmental impact toward the positive end of the spectrum, as it looks to the ambitious target of net zero emissions by 2030.

Among key strategies in achieving this goal, DIAL is looking to energy conservation and efficiency improvement, renewable energy use, green building development, green transportation programmes, operational excellence and adoption of an emission management system.

As the first carbon neutral airport in the APAC region, DIAL uses 100% renewable energy for its operations following installation of a 7.8MW solar PV system on-site – and has adopted green building requirements, becoming the first airport in the world to achieve both LEED Platinum and PEER (Performance Excellence in Electricity Renewal) Platinum certifications (Terminal 3).

The airport has replaced 90% of its airside vehicles with 64 EVs, a move that has reduced close to 1,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year. This is complemented by strategically placed high-voltage and fast-charging stations.

Among the airport’s innovative emission mitigation initiatives, use of TaxiBot reduces aircraft fuel consumption during taxi, while its use of the Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM) system has improved air traffic flow and capacity management by reducing delays and improving predictability – and this in turn reduces fuel consumption and emissions.

When it comes to waste, the airport takes a circular economy approach and in 2020, became the first in the country to be free of single-use plastics. DIAL has a big focus on sustainable water management, boasting around 350 rainwater harvesting systems with a further 300 under construction – as it looks to become water positive.

5

London Heathrow Airport

Country: United Kingdom

World’s busiest airports: 8th

Net zero emissions target: mid-2030s

With aircraft taking off and landing close to every 45 seconds at Heathrow, the airport is among the world’s busiest.

As part of Heathrow’s holistic sustainability strategy – Heathrow 2.0 – the airport is committed to reducing both in the air and on the ground emissions, and four years ago launched its Centre of Excellence as a hub of learning and exploration in sustainable air travel. The centre connects experts, from entrepreneurs to academics to explore, test and pilot ideas.

Cognisant of the fact that Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) will revolutionise flying, Heathrow launched a world first – an airport SAF incentive programme which aims to cover up to 50% of the extra fuel cost, making the fuel more affordable for airlines to use. For 2023, airlines committed to 1.5% SAF, this percentage will be scaled up for 2024 and beyond, says Nigel Milton, Chief of Staff & Carbon at Heathrow, with a target of 11% SAF usage by 2030.

The airport is also making big changes on the ground and by 2030, is committed to cut carbon by at least 45% compared to 2019 by enabling passengers and employees to travel to the airport sustainability, delivering a net zero supply chain, and investing in efficient infrastructure. The ultimate goal is to operate zero carbon airport buildings and infrastructure by the mid-2030s.

Its fleet of airport vehicles are also growing, with 17% already zero-emissions, scaling up to 100% by 2030.

Heathrow has also incorporated its 2030 sustainability goals into its funding strategy, becoming the world’s first airport to launch an innovative Sustainability Linked Bond, and incorporating the airport’s Scope 3 emissions – which account for 99% of its carbon footprint.

Given that Heathrow is the largest single-site of employment in the UK, offering careers to tens of thousands of local residents, the airport is committed to its employees and community. While its Giving Back Programme pledges to help benefit one million local residents by 2030, it is targeting employing 25% of colleagues at senior level from ethnic backgrounds.

This summer, the airport began a landmark trial to explore the viability of lower carbon concrete. A first such airport trial of its kind, Heathrow is testing a product from Ecocem and Cemex, which claims to cut emissions by 50% compared to conventional concrete. At least 6% of global carbon emissions each year is linked to concrete production and if the trials are successful, this could provide a blueprint for other airports keen on reducing carbon from all areas of their operations.

"I hope that this trial will help radically transform the built environment at Heathrow in the years to come,” Milton said. 

6

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)

Country: United States

World’s busiest airports: 6th

Net zero emissions target: 2045

Los Angeles Airport (LAX) is the largest and busiest of two airports owned by Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), which set out its Sustainability Action Plan in 2019 in alignment with the City of Los Angeles’s policies.

LAWA is aiming for 100% renewable electricity use, zero potable water for non-potable uses and carbon neutrality for its operations by 2045 – and according to its latest 2022 report, is “meeting and exceeding our goals and milestones”, says LAWA CEO Justin Erbacci.

In 2016, LAX became one of just three airports to be accredited thorugh the Airport Carbon Accreditation Programme at level 3 for greenhouse gas emissions. 

LAX is ahead of it 2025 goal to have a 15% reduction in energy use per passenger and an increase in use of SAF at LAX, while on the ground – it has met the 2023 aim to have a 20% zero emissions bus fleet and is on track to meet its 2025 aim to have a 25% waste diversion.

By 2031, the airport is expected to operate with a 100% EV fleet. Opening in 2024, LAX’s electric train system is the centrepiece of the airport’s US$5.5 billion modernisation programme. Featuring six stations, the APM will cater to 30 million passengers per year, resulting in 117,000 fewer vehicle miles travelled per day. Leveraging cutting-edge sustainability practices, the system’s fleet will consist of 44 cars that are fully electric, 98% recyclable and generate a portion of their own power through regenerative braking.

Complementing this, and set to open in 2024, LAX’s rent-a-car solar panel-powered ConRAC facility is already landing numerous awards in sustainable design, including the prestigious LEED Gold certification. By relocating rental car companies into one convenient location the ConRAC will eliminate the 3,200 daily shuttle trips, and will also achieve an impressive 36% energy use reduction.

LAWA is currently exploring on-site power generation at LAX, with a feasibility study suggesting a possible capacity of up to 23.5 megawatts of power.

When it comes to biodiversity, LAX is also proving its sustainability credentials. LAWA is working with local non-profit groups and government agencies to restore the 302-acre LAX Dunes ecosystem, one of the last remaining naturally occurring coastal dunes ecosystems in California and home to more than 900 plant and animal species.

Recycling is taken care of by donations to local charities since 2012, while the LAX Organics Waste Recycling Programme sees discarded food scraps converted into natural gas. With the ultimate goal to achieve zero waste, LAX took the decision this year to ban plastic water bottles, instead installing 60 new hydration stations across LAX’s expansive terminals.

7

Frankfurt Airport

Country: Germany

World’s busiest airports: 18th

Net zero emissions target: 2045

With nearly 49 million passengers passing through Frankfurt in 2022, the airport is within the top 20 busiest worldwide. Operated by Fraport Group, the airport recently revised its masterplan for climate action, intensifying its measures and cutting its 2030 carbon target by one-third.

With a target for becoming CO2-free by 2045, the airport has managed to lower CO2 emissions by 50% since 1990 and is looking to lower these by a further 50,000 tonnes by 2030, representing a 78% reduction over 1990 levels. Central to this will be the future electricity mix at Frankfurt Airport, which will mainly comprise renewable sources starting 2026.

By this date, nearly 85% of electricity requirements will be met by North Sea’s wind energy, thanks to an agreement with German energy company EnBW. While a park of solar cell panels will add another “significant proportion” to the energy mix.

The  airport is also rolling out ‘smart, needs-driven’ building technology for air conditioning as well as lighting across building infrastructure. This will include AI predictive algorithms to control air conditioning, reducing CO2 emissions by up to 1,900 tonnes per year.

Currently being expanded and set to begin operating in 2026, Terminal 3 is the showcase for Frankfurt Airport’s sustainability efforts. The building’s architecture features large pane-glass windows that minimise the use of artificial light sources, and requires only minimal heating thanks to energy-efficient construction methods.

The home of national carrier Lufthansa, the airport and airline are also investing in more fuel-efficient aircraft and trialling fuel blends to include SAF.

Operator Fraport owns airports or shares in airports in many different locations, including the Americas and Asia.

8

Dubai International Airport (DXB)

Country: United Arab Emirates

World’s busiest airports: 5th

Net-zero emissions target: 2050

Among the top five world’s busiest international airports, with annual traffic of 66 million passngers in 2022, Dubai International Airport (DXB) is committed to achieving net zero by 2050, proving this with its recent sign-up to the Airports of Tomorrow, a collaborative venture by the WEF and the Airports Council International.

In its strategy to reduce energy use, the airport has installed a 15,000-panel solar energy system at Terminal 2, the largest of any Middle Eastern airport. Widespread replacement of conventional lights with energy-efficient LED fixtures is also part of the strategy.

Among other landmark achievements, DXB has delivered a 60% reduction in waste that is sent to landfills, thanks to a food waste treatment plan with BEEAH Group that captures and composts more than 2,000 tonnes of food waste annually from F&B outlets, lounges, and hotels across DXB terminals and concourses.

The airport also converts 100% of all cooking oil used in F&B outlets into biodiesel fuel and is progressing with efforts to integrate electric ground operations vehicles.

“Diverting 60% of our waste from landfills is testament to our collaborative efforts with stakeholders at DXB and highlights our commitment to sustainable practices and the UAE’s broader sustainability agenda, aimed at achieving Net Zero by 2050,” says Paul Griffiths, CEO, Dubai Airports, which operates DXB.

Other waste diversion strategies include separation of recyclables at the source and on-site composting of organic materials.

9

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)

Country: United States

World’s busiest airports: 1st

Net-zero emissions target: 2050

As the world’s busiest airport with more than 93 million passengers in 2022, cutting emissions at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) is no mean feat, but the airport has been setting national sustainability standards for many years.

As well as being the first airport in the world to reach the milestone of a 100 million passengers in 2015, ATL became the first in the US to earn ISO sustainability certification and the first to be awarded certification under the LEED or Communities programme.

Since unveiling its first carbon policy in 2022, the airport has put in place various green measures to reduce its carbon footprint, conserve energy, and promote sustainable practices. ATL is committed to reaching the City of Atlanta’s 100% Clean and Renewable Energy by 2035 objective and the ACI Net Zero goal by 2050.

As part of it 2035 Sustainable Management Plan, Scope 1 and 2 emissions will be controlled by enhancing the airport’s energy efficiency with the help of energy retrofits and all-electric building systems; and the airport has further teamed with Georgia Power to use the arbnco platform, which evaluates metered energy data and delivers recommendations on energy conservation, renewables and load-shedding prospects.

The goal is for new buildings to meet a minimum of LEED Silver certification, while for existing buildings, the airport will incorporate energy efficiency as well as identify opportunities for alternative energy to decrease the use of fossil fuels.  

In spearheading sustainability initiatives, ATL has installed high-efficiency AC units, reflective roofs, an all-LED airfield, solar powered security cameras, electric vehicle charging stations, recycled water, low-voltage interior lights, and auto-heat reducing windows.

10

Istanbul International Airport

Country: Turkey

World’s busiest airports: 7th

Net-zero emissions target: 2050

As a gateway to Europe and Asia, Istanbul International Airport (opened in 2018) is Europe’s busiest and the seventh busiest in the world with more than 64 million passengers in 2022. It is also the world’s best, recently securing the title in the 2023 Global Traveler awards.

As the first airport in Turkey to achieve Airport Carbon Accreditation, Istanbul has developed a long-term target for absolute carbon emissions reduction, with its carbon management strategy now fully aligned with the ambition of the Paris Agreement, to reach net zero carbon by 2050. It has also been granted an A Score from the CDP Climate Change Programme, making it one of the 15 leading companies in Turkey.

The airport has recorded a 21% reduction in Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions since 2019, reducing emissions by 13% in 2022 alone, with plans to reduce these by a further 23% by 2025. And it is also now meeting 35% of its water consumption needs through reclaimed water, while its solid waste recycling ratio was increased to 34% in 2022.

Among strategies, the airport has installed a Lighting Automation System and solar panels with the aim of sourcing all of its electricity from renewables.

Not just that, the airport initiated a 5,000-hectare afforestation project in 2019 as part of its sustainability pledge, resulting in the planting of 2,695 trees between 2019 and 2022.

“We plan to be the first airport to start generating all of its electricity consumption through renewable energy sources with our project named İGA GES, which we will launch in the first quarter of 2024 and plan to complete by the end of that year,” Acting CEO Selahattin Bilgen said. “We also contribute to the development of environmental awareness in our country with our zero-waste projects.”

Istanbul uses IoT and big data to remote monitor its equipment, including energy systems to enable predictive maintenance and ensure that the 2050 net zero CO2 target is feasible. Data acquired is being used for capacity planning for the solar power plant and Hydrogen facilities, which are being built to create a renewable energy ecosystem.

They began services in collaboration with Turkish Fuel Systems (TFS) for SAF usage in March 2022, with Turkish Airlines consistently using SAF twice a week. The ultimate goal is to produce and spread the use of SAF. 

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