Between a rock and a hard place

10 May 2021

Aviation is often attributed as one of the main ‘polluters’ when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Internationally, the industry is looking into sustainable ways to reduce them. Locally, people often point to airports to lead the charge. But being dependent on both the industry and the local political agenda makes it hard for airports to make that mark. How do you navigate this when you are stuck between a rock and a hard place?

When we speak about greenhouse gas emissions, people mostly refer to CO2-emissions. With instruments such as emissions caps, carbon emission trading and innovations made by the aviation industry – such as cleaner engines, synthetic fuel, and possibly electrifying airplanes – the international community is trying to reduce these emissions. In the Netherlands however, when we speak about emissions, often it refers to nitro oxide, or NOx. In recent history, NOx-emissions have become one of the main parameters for aviation and particularly airports to grow. Political choices are based on NOx-deposits around airports and under flightpaths. These parameters also apply to other industries, such as the agriculture sector and infrastructure and fall under the so-called Integrated Approach to Nitrogen or PAS. In order to comply with political ambitions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half, all industries must adhere to the PAS. In 2019 however, the Council of State (the highest administrative court in the Netherlands) ruled that the PAS was flawed, and all activities based on it were put on hold. Fortunately, that had no immediate impact on airports and their growth ambitions.

Aerius calculation tool

But how much of the NOx-emissions can you attribute to airports? To calculate that, the Dutch government implemented the Aerius calculation tool. It calculates the (historic) level of nitrogen deposition in nature and is part of permit acquisition for airport growth. The problem with this method, is that it relies heavily on models. So, by definition the calculations consist of uncertainties. The industry therefor is calling for a unified formula, to calculate more accurately its part in the NOx-deposits. Until that comes, the industry must use the Aerius tool, to calculate deposits if they want to grow. And there lies the problem for airports. Because airplanes are mostly responsible for the NOx- and carbon-deposits. If airports really want to grow, they are dependent on manufacturers to come up with innovations that reduce those emissions. In the meantime, it is possible that governments set stricter parameters for growth. So, airports are stuck in the middle.

Carbon neutral

When airports ask us to help them with their plans for growth – one of the things Adecs Airinfra Consultants provide, is calculations of current and future emission-deposits – we also encourage airports to try to do as much as possible on their end to reduce them. Electrifying ground operations equipment for one, is a way. But also becoming carbon neutral, both on and off the airport. Although airports themselves may not be the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, showing that you understand the need for sustainable growth and with that encouraging others in the industry, will give you a better position when it comes to permits. It is one of the few tools airports have to make that happen.

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