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Preparing for take-off

A low-carbon airport journey will help aviation deliver a low-carbon future, says Tim Beggs.

Aviation currently produces just over 2% of all human-induced carbon emissions, but without intervention its contribution will grow in the future as other sectors decarbonise, and make it harder to limit global temperature rise.

There is increasing pressure on the aviation industry to change. Carbon reduction ambitions set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement checked airport expansion in many countries, and carbon targets now being set by governments may further limit development. The UK’s sixth carbon budget, for example, commits to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels, and to achieve net-zero by 2050.

The climate conference in Glasgow in November (COP26) is likely to reinforce the need for the world to achieve net-zero within 30 years and keep temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial times – adding further to demands on the aviation industry to switch to cleaner, low-carbon flights and operations.

A collective effort

A collective effort

There are many ways aviation could reduce emissions, but it will take a collective effort to get the industry to achieve a low-carbon future.

Collaboration between airlines, airports, air navigation service providers, aircraft manufacturers and energy providers will be essential to developing a joined-up strategy that has buy-in from everyone.

The focus of attention is often on emissions from flights, as the majority of aviation emissions are from aircraft. Reducing these emissions will require a combination of travel demand management, improvements in fleet efficiency and affordable clean replacements for fossil jet fuel. Yet, all parts of the aviation system – from surface access journeys to the airport to infrastructure energy and heating – have a part to play if we are to address the industry’s contribution to climate change.

Creating a net-zero vision for the airport of the future would be a good place to start, and should cover passengers’ or goods’ end-to-end journey through an airport system. This vision will need to be accompanied by a business case alongside realistic and deliverable technological solutions.

Taking a strategic approach

Taking a strategic approach

The vision for an affordable net-zero airport of the future will centre on a strategic development plan – consisting of a long-term masterplan and a delivery roadmap – supported by assessment tools to evaluate options and monitor progress. (demonstrating how to secure net-zero).


Masterplans show what the future airport will look like, and should cover the entire system, from the journey to the airport via surface transport; airport infrastructure and movements through it; and flight departures and arrivals. A net-zero masterplan can be undertaken as part of a comprehensive plan, such as for determining future overall capital expenditure plan, or a specific study to identify the most appropriate solutions in terms of performance and affordability. Local geographical, political and regulation factors mean that the best solutions will vary from airport to airport. Cost of carbon offsetting or the impact of a national/local carbon budget will also differ across the industry and will need to be factored into the timeframe for the masterplan to determine the optimum strategy.


Having a lead masterplan vision for the future is important for business planning, stakeholder engagement and, where appropriate, planning consent. Change is inevitable, so a degree of flexibility is required across the typical 25-year masterplan timeframe. There could be multiple paths to realising the vision or it may recommend safeguarding alternative masterplan end-states, depending on how different drivers evolve in future. Developing an accompanying roadmap or phasing strategy is crucial for forward planning and decision making. The roadmap is a tool to help consider the likely dates of technological advancements, pricing strategies and market forces to identify the right timescales for investing in net zero measures. It can identify what decisions are required at different points of the journey, either to choose a particular phasing approach or, in a flexible masterplan, to choose between alternative end-state scenarios (see diagram below). The roadmap would ideally be based on triggers – such as traffic growth or environmental targets – rather than simply dates.

Assessment tools

The planning and delivery of the net-zero airport of the future relies on an effective tool to assess the carbon footprint of the masterplan and roadmap – including embodied carbon, the airport’s own emissions (direct (eg from company vehicles) and indirect (eg from purchased energy) emissions) and its impact on wider carbon footprint (eg from purchased goods and services, and those from airport tenants). This would be used to assess options together with established tools for factors like costs, business case, deliverability and operability as well as non-carbon environmental factors. Once the data across all assessment criteria has been considered, the preferred masterplan and roadmap for the future airport vision can be determined and the set of preferred interventions and timescales confirmed.

From easy to difficult

From easy to difficult

A net-zero airport of the future will feature a mix of initiatives.

Depending on the airport’s location and circumstances, some, such as switching to renewable energy supplies and introducing clean surface access options like hydrogen trams and electrified rail, will be relatively easy to implement. Others, including the production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and achieving a price point to support its upscaling and uptake, will require more work and more effort. Others still, such as the introduction of hydrogen or electric aircraft for short- and mid-range aircraft, will require innovative implementation solutions.

Every airport must realise its own net-zero vision of the future, and in a way that best fits its business models and stakeholders.

Our masterplanning, sustainability, energy and digital expertise working for major airport hubs such as Heathrow, JFK, Singapore, Hong Kong and Auckland, mean we can help all airports secure their place in a carbon-free world.

      Tim Beggs is project principal for aviation at Mott MacDonald

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