Landstrips and sustainable city development

It is a common misconception that sustainability in air travel is just about curbing CO2 emissions from airplanes. Of course this helps but the aviation industry’s responsibilities are far wider than this.

The sector is responsible for about 2 per cent of global greenhouse gas emission but it also has a pivotal role to play in driving forward sustainable urban development. Airports are hubs that provide for the various needs of our cities and they rely on numerous different modes of transport that operate in and around them. These networks require extensive coordination between airplanes, airports, buses, trains, passenger cars, ships and ports.

Regional and municipal decision-makers must support this coordination with incentives, green procurement and smart regulation if they are to create the right conditions for development. But innovation can come from the aviation industry itself.

As competition in the battle for air passengers grows ever fiercer, all of the industry’s players are driving to increase efficiency. But as airports are shared resources, this can promote both cooperation as well as competition. Around the world, airport operators can be doing far more to achieve better integration between economic, ecological and social objectives.

To get a better understanding of both policy and practice, I visited an airport that has attracted considerable international attention for its sustainability efforts – Arlanda Airport in Stockholm.

Beneath the surface of the airport a carbon neutral aquifer has been developed. It cools the terminals in the summer whilst storing warmth for the winter, when it is used in ground heating systems at aircraft parking stands and to heat air in the buildings. Not only does this help reduce the airport’s carbon footprint, it also saves money according to the CEO of the airport operator Swedavia, Torborg Chetkovics.

“We could write that investment off in five years time” she told me, “and then after that it’s just savings on the energy costs of the airport.” “We have worked very hard to decrease our environmental effects. We have minimized CO2 emissions by 50 percent and reduced our energy use by about 30 per cent. By 2020 we will have zero emissions of CO2 from our own activities,” she added.

Swedavia is responsible for 11 of Sweden’s airports that have been at the forefront of sustainable practice for years. It’s so green-conscious that only environmentally-friendly taxis are allowed in to collect passengers. What’s more, Swedavia takes an admirable level of responsibility for the wider network that it inhabits.

“We also have a CO2 restriction that is linked not only to our activities, but also to how you are coming to and from the airport.” Chetkovics said. “This means that if you take your dirty car and travel to the airport and fly to Zurich, for example, then your CO2 emission is calculated from when you leave you home.” “I think we all need to understand that we need to work together and between the different modes of transportation. Politicians are primarily interested in discussing rail and road and that’s not bad, but they are missing the rest of it.”

Swedavia’s record suggests that this isn’t just talk. Right on cue, as I leave Arlanda after the interview I see the new charging stands for electric cars being installed and a counter showing visitors how much electricity is stored and how much CO2 has been saved.

Global urbanization means that we now have more than 400 cities with populations over 1 million people and about 44,000 airports served by 1,700 airlines. Airports are increasingly important hubs that link cities and promote development, particularly those in Africa, China and India that interconnect emerging powers with Europe, USA and South America.

But this growth, whilst enhancing commercial potential for the aviation industry, seems to have strengthened resistance to change. Sector-based lobbies (in this case from the airlines) and national government representatives are almost always the biggest threat to efforts to resolve environmental issues.

Let’s look to Arlanda Airport as a shining example. Its model breaks away from the traditional sector-based interests and instead shows that collaboration can result in competitive advantage. The numerous international awards that the Arlanda has won are tangible proof the airport is on track.

In Sweden there is evidence that successful collaborative models can be designed. A partnership involving airlines, airports and other transport operators have impressed internationally. Let us expand on these ideas and create the levels of interaction needed to bring about such sustainable urban development.

Stockholm-based Kaj Embrén has been involved with Sustainable Development for more than 30 years. He writes at www.kajembren.com, where this blog was originally published.

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