Airport's sustainability progress report signals good news for EVs, renewables and plastic waste, but questions remain over tackling greenhouse gases from aircraft
Can an airport ever be sustainable? It is a question Heathrow Airport has sought to answer in the year since it published a sweeping new sustainability strategy, stepping up its focus on electric vehicles (EVs), renewables, and clean tech innovation as it seeks to firm up its case for expansion in the face of significant concerns over greenhouse gases, air pollution, and noise.
A Parliamentary vote over whether or not to allow a third runway to be built at Heathrow is expected to finally take place this summer - barring a diplomatic crisis or snap election. The vote will follow over a decade of fierce debate over the controversial expansion plans, and the airport's sustainability credentials will be front and centre as MPs mull the final decision.
The government has said it will only approve the project if it complies with long term air quality and greenhouse gas emission goals. Ministers and Heathrow maintain this is very much possible, but opponents argue the modelling used to show the project will not breach environmental targets is based on supremely optimistic assumptions about future clean technology adoption.
Of course, if it is to win support for a third runway, the airport faces a number of major challenges. Heathrow Airport Ltd's operations only account for three per cent of greenhouse gases from the site, while a whopping 97 per cent is emitted from the aircraft over which the company has no direct control.
Meanwhile, on top of the millions of passengers travelling to and from the airport, around 67,000 people work there, of which only around 6,000 are Heathrow staff. With the airport already an air pollution hotspot, cutting down on NOx-heavy internal combustion engines motoring in and around its perimeters is a major challenge.
In a bid to shore up its case for expansion, therefore, Heathrow has invested significantly in green initiatives over the past couple of years, culminating in its Heathrow 2.0 sustainability plan in 2017. Eighteen months in the making, the sustainability strategy set out a number of eye-catching goals, including becoming a carbon neutral operation - albeit on the ground only - by 2020.
To its credit, Heathrow's latest sustainability progress report released yesterday demonstrates a number of green successes towards this overarching goal have been chalked off in the past year. For example, on the ground operations have been running on 100 per cent renewable electricity since April 2017 and this week Heathrow joined the plastic waste crusade, announcing plans to enable the recycling of all coffee cups from over 20 of its retailers by the end of 2018. It added that it is also working towards phasing out single use plastics from sale, such as bottles, straws, and stirrers.
EVs have also been a major focus, with Heathrow having last year joined the international EV100 initiative, pledging to switch all its cars, large vans, and 50 per cent of its heavy goods vehicles to electric or plug-in hybrid by 2030. Indeed, the airport will have to make the proposed switch if it is to bring these vehicles in line with Heathrow's ultra low emission zone by 2025.
The report reveals that at present more than 80 EV charging points are now available to airport passengers, staff and airside vehicles, which means the site now has the highest density of EV charging infrastructure in Europe. Last year Heathrow surpassed its own target to convert more than 50 of its own vehicles to electric or plug-in hybrids, with plans to up this number to 75 by the end of this year, bringing its total investment in EV infrastructure to £5m. It means there are now over 800 EVs operating at the airport, including airside vehicles as well as general maintenance and staff cars.
In order to encourage other firms and airlines operating at the site to switch to lower emission transport, though, Heathrow last year launched its Clean Vehicles Partnership, which offers financial incentives to airlines that operate low emission vehicles on the runways. It is partly through this initiative that British Airways has now started using zero emission, remote controlled 'Mototok' vehicles to tug heavy short haul aircraft along the runway at Terminal 5A.
"This first for any major international airport is supported by 25 additional charging points," the report states, adding that the Clean Vehicles Partnership will see it "continue to run seminars and workshops and offer online resources to that every business at Heathrow understands the benefit of cleaner air for our local environment".
Heathrow also hopes the opening of Crossrail later this year and HS2 phase 2b will help boost public transport access to the airport and cut down on polluting cars. Last year, 42.3 per cent of passengers used public transport to get to and from the airport, with the goal to raise public transport's share to 45 per cent by 2019 and 50 per cent by 2030.
Other successes demonstrated in the report include a 30 per cent reduction in flights after 11.30pm in order to combat noise issues, as well as the launch of Heathrow's Centre of Excellence for sustainability - which is set to focus on circular economy, advanced materials, and clean tech - backed by an innovation prize of £20,000.
All in all, it signals a strong set of green commitments and achievements, with executives clearly cognisant of the need to boost their sustainability credentials ahead of a crunch Parliamentary vote that could take place within weeks. In that sense, then, pressure and scrutiny from the public and green groups has clearly already had a significant impact on the airport's operations.
Yet the elephant in the room is that which remains largely out of Heathrow's direct control. The airlines and aircraft that use the airport account for almost all of the site's carbon footprint. With the UK government confirming just last week that it will look at how to set a path towards a net zero emissions economy, many observers remain convinced increasing UK airport capacity only increases the chances of the country's binding climate goals being breached.
Yesterday's progress report is well aware of this problem, stating that "being successful in achieving our goals is beyond our direct control". It also points to the success of the international aviation industry's recently agreed CORSIA - Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation - as crucial to operating a low carbon airport in future.
At a recent briefing with journalists, executives conceded that pushing significant culture change among airlines to be more ambitious on reducing their climate impact could take some time. Yet they also argued Heathrow would have more clout to influence airlines on green issues if was granted the benefit of more capacity from a third runway.
"Heathrow 2.0 is an ambitious plan," the airport's chief executive John Holland-Kaye writes in the report. "We expected to stretch ourselves and in some areas to take a leap of faith. We know that some of the solutions that we'll need do not exist yet."
It is not a statement that is likely to convince green campaigners that a third runway at Heathrow can be approved this year and operated in a genuinely low carbon economy. A report last year from the Campaign for Better Transport spelt out the hard maths Heathrow's third runway would have to contend with. The study took the microscope to the assumptions and conclusions made in the final report of the Airports Commission, which recommended a third runway be built at Heathrow. It found that the assumptions used by the commission to keep within UK climate targets - targets which could soon be tightened if the government adopts a net zero emission target - include soaring carbon prices that would reduce the number of UK flights taken from other airports.
Greenpeace UK's chief scientist Doug Parr recently set out the problem as he saw it. "There seems to be a strong consensus amongst the UK's political class that building a third runway at Heathrow is an excellent idea, provided it can be done with no increase in air pollution, no increase in traffic, no increase in noise, no increase in cost and no breach of climate targets," he said. "Which is, of course, impossible."
Heathrow will be hoping its roadmap for carbon neutral growth, which is earmarked for launch later this year, will provide further detail to back up its case, although it presently seems unlikely to appear before the crucial Parliamentary vote. That strategy will set out how the airport plans to work with airlines to incentivise innovation and lower carbon operations, as well as the progress it has made so far. It is also likely to provide more detail on how negative emissions programmes and offsets could help ensure airports play a role in a net zero emission economy.
But until then, regardless of impressive rapid progress and ambitious commitments on EVs, public transport, renewable energy and the circular economy over the past year, Heathrow will continue to face questions as to how a third runway can be cleared for take-off without posing a major threat to the UK's credibility as a global leader on climate action.
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