As Asia’s aviation sector grows, will its airports gain green wings?

Asia will drive the growth of the global aviation industry in the next 20 years, expanding the region’s role in ensuring that the industry becomes less taxing on the environment. Here’s a look at what Asia’s airports are doing to prepare for a future of low-carbon aviation.

Travellers in Don Mueang airport
Travellers in transit at Don Mueang airport in Thailand. As Asia becomes the centre of global transport growth, can airports become more sustainable? Image: ABB

Asia’s aviation industry is taking flight, putting a spotlight on its proliferating airports’ impact on the environment.

More than half of all new air passengers in the next 20 years will come from the region, with China slated to overtake the United States as the world’s largest aviation market and India and Indonesia also expected to break into the top five markets in third and fourth place respectively, according to the International Air Transport Association’s latest forecast.

“We’re seeing a geographical reshuffling of world air traffic to the East…driven by the region’s continued robust economic growth, improvements in household incomes and favourable population and demographic profiles,” said the association.

Countries across Asia are already building hundreds of airports to cope with rising demand. China will double its number of airports from about 235 to 450 by the year 2035, while India plans to increase its total from about 100 to between 150 and 200 in the same period. Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea are also spending or plan to spend billions of dollars to expand their airports’ capacity.

According to the United States Federal Aviation Authority, emissions from airport operations come from fuel used in airport vehicles, electricity use, and the jet fuel used to power aircraft at airport gates, for starters. 

Fang Liu, secretary general of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, stressed: “It is so important that future increases in air transport capacity are managed by airports which have been built or modernised on the basis of the most effective environmental policies and capabilities available.”

“Each new airport infrastructure project is an opportunity to surpass compliance with the latest sustainability standards, minimise the impact of airport activities on the environment, and reduce the effect of climate change on related infrastructure and operations,” she said.

Designing better buildings

Asia’s airport operators are taking heed. When Malaysia Airports added a second terminal to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the buildings were designed to maximise the use of sunlight for lighting and to capture rainwater, which now supplies nine per cent of their water requirements. The terminal also uses solar power for 32 per cent of its energy needs.

In February 2019, the operator also launched a sustainability charter to guide the country’s aviation and related industries in applying eco-friendly practices and other improvement measures, such as the implementation of energy management systems, condensate water recycling, and waste management techniques.

When China’s Beijing Daxing International Airport opens in September 2019, it will also use renewable energy for more than 10 per cent of its power needs. The airport, which is expected to be one of the world’s busiest, will have solar panels on the roofs of its carpark building, business jet hangars and cargo areas, as well as heating and cooling systems powered by geothermal heat pumps in the nearby Yongding River basin.

In Singapore, the Changi Airport Group (CAG) has set the target of reducing Changi Airport’s greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 20 per cent by the 2029/2030 financial year, compared to its 2017/2018 levels. Its ongoing projects include the replacement of its buildings’ conventional lighting with LED lights and the upgrading of its chillers to energy-efficient ones.

“In the past, when aircraft parking bays were repaved and reconstructed, the existing materials were discarded as waste and new construction material, specifically a concrete mix batched with 100 per cent new stones, was used,” added a spokesperson.

A collaboration with a local university led to a concrete mix composed of 50 per cent new stones and 50 per cent recycled ones that is now used to build the airport’s aircraft parking bays without compromising their quality and durability. “This initiative helps to reduce the number of trips required to transport new stones as well as the discarded construction waste,” said the spokesperson.

Greening airport operations

Other measures have been aimed at improving airport operations’ environmental-friendliness. CAG has installed 26 charging points in Changi Airport to encourage the adoption of electric baggage tractors, and now has 80 of them operating airside, helping it to cut its carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 627 tonnes so far.

“We are also progressively installing additional electric vehicle chargers throughout the airside areas of Terminals 1, 2 and 3. Our goal is to convert the majority of airside vehicles and mobile equipment to electric-powered ones, which will significantly mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions on the airside,” said the spokesperson.

Companies such as engineering giant ABB are also supplying technologies that can improve airports’ green credentials. Since 2017, ABB has been piloting its ABB Ability electrical distribution management system at the Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok. The intelligent system connects a range of smart power devices, also developed by ABB, to boost the airport power system’s efficiency, reliability and safety.

China’s Beijing Airport also uses ABB’s i-bus KNX intelligent building control system to optimise its lighting. For example, the airport has glass walls and roof-mounted skylight windows. Light sensors mounted on the airport’s exterior communicate with the system to cut back on the use of artificial lighting when there is sufficient natural daylight. Motion sensors in restrooms also alert the system to switch off lights when there is no need for them.

At Birmingham Airport in Britain, ABB is installing its OppCharge opportunity charging system to support the airport’s upcoming rollout of six fully-electric, low-emission single-deck buses to transport passengers. The system needs just two to six minutes to fully recharge the buses, enabling their continuous use.

Future trends

Wai Tai Yeap, ABB Singapore’s head of electrification business, noted that airports can do more to become sustainable. “Metering and energy management systems are of great value to airports by providing more insight into their energy usage. Smart building technologies are also key to reducing energy usage and improving sustainability,” he said.

ABB is working on expanding its portfolio of products. In 2019, it will launch a new research and development centre in the Netherlands that will focus on charging for electric buses and other sustainable mobility technologies.

“The integration of electric vehicles for the transportation of passengers and goods around airports will help to reduce their emissions,” said Wai. “Our investment in the centre will expand our capabilities in the rapidly-expanding electric bus segment and help us to continue to pioneer solutions in this field.” 

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