Inside Heathrow 2.0: a flight path towards true sustainability leadership

Heathrow has just unveiled a sustainability strategy that could prove a game-changer for sustainable aviation. But does it make the airport's controversial expansion worthwhile? edie editor Luke Nicholls sits down with the firm's director of sustainability and executive director of expansion to find out.

What do Kingfisher, Marks & Spencer (M&S) and Unilever have in common? Yes, they are all FTSE 100 firms. Yes, they are all headquartered in London. And yes, their products can be found in households across the globe. But there is one rather more impressive and shrewd characteristic that binds this triumvirate of corporate giants: they are all sustainability leaders.

The story of sustainability for each of these leaders follows a similar narrative, and has similar central characters involved. It begins with a chief executive or senior board member that has a genuine passion for doing business better – Ian Cheshire at Kingfisher, Stuart Rose at M&S and Paul Polman at Unilever. This then paves the way for the organisation to set a series of highly ambitious sustainability targets under an industry-leading blueprint – Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan and M&S’s Plan A in 2007, and Kingfisher’s Net Positive programme in 2012. These targets are then worked towards through an ongoing programme of pioneering, often collaborative, initiatives and, once hit, are extended to a whole new set of goals that are perhaps even more audacious than their predecessors. And the story goes on. And they lived happily ever after.

It is no surprise, then, that when Heathrow airport began thinking about embarking upon a defining chapter of its own sustainability story, the group’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye and director of sustainability Matt Gorman met with the sustainability team at Kingfisher, M&S and Unilever to heed some advice.

“They have all done a great job in the sustainability space, and we wanted to understand exactly how they’ve done it,” Gorman explains. “We received two key messages from those discussions. One was to be bold – you might not always be clear about the specific detail of how you’re going to get there, but it’s important to set out some bold ambitions. It’s amazing how much you can mobilise an organisation just by having a clear-sighted, long-term vision.

“The second piece of advice we received was to be really clear about what our particular purpose is – how should we set Heathrow apart from M&S or a Unilever? We very quickly came to a simple conclusion on this: the thing that sets us apart is that we are very geographically focused; we have 76,000 employees, we have a single footprint, and so a big part of our sustainability strategy should focus on the local agenda and how we can be a great place to work and live around.”

Aiming high

Just over a year on from those discussions, Heathrow has this week launched Heathrow 2.0, a 70-page document outlining the airport’s plan for sustainable growth.

Of course, it is impossible to read through the new strategy without the constant reminder of the potential negative impacts caused by Heathrow’s controversial expansion. The 260,000 extra flights a year anticipated from the third runway, which is backed by the Government, would make the airport the UK’s largest source of carbon emissions. Critics have therefore been arguing that Heathrow could dash hopes of meeting the UK’s climate change targets, rather than helping the world stay within 2.0 degrees of climate change.

But a candid foreword by Holland-Kaye sets a tone of authenticity to this new document, and a broad spread of bold intentions leaves the reader with a feeling, a belief, that this business is serious about sustainability. The document is in fact packed with more than 200 targets across a range of social, environmental and economic issues.

By 2020, all growth from the airport’s new runway will be carbon-neutral, the last 5% of flights made by the most polluting aircraft will have been removed, NOx emissions from airport-related traffic will have been reduced by at least 40% from a 2013 baseline, and a new Centre of Excellence for sustainable aviation will be developed. By 2030, more than half of all airport passenger journeys will be made via public and sustainable transport. By 2050, Heathrow will be zero-carbon and zero-waste, and all of the water consumed by the airport will come from sustainable sources. This sustainability super-strategy is the real deal – so long as it is successfully achieved.

Which is why, here in a conference room in the basement of the Covent Garden Hotel in London, Gorman and Heathrow’s executive director of expansion Emma Gilthorpe are brimming with excitement. “It’s a very proud moment for us,” Gorman tells edie as he looks over the newly-published report. “This has been more than a year in development and it is a real statement of intent.”

“But this isn’t day one of our journey,” adds Gilthorpe. This is a mid-point. We’ve got the buy-in for this and so it is right that we can be ambitious and have the confidence that we will have the support we need to reach our end-goals.”

Heathrow recruited two consultancies to help formulate this report: Robertsbridge Group, whose previous partners have included the likes of APP, Nestle and Unilever (and whose Twitter profile picture is of a person taking a leap into deep water – perhaps reflecting the level of ambition it helps to instil in its clients); and Futerra, whose co-founder Ed Gillespie has previously written books on how to travel around the world without flying – not the first person one might think of turning to when seeking help delivering an airport strategy underpinned by expansion.

“The consultants we’ve worked with on this have been critical friends throughout,” Gorman says. “They are not afraid to challenge us and we felt we need to be challenged in this space to ensure we put the right aspirations out there. We know we still don’t have all of the answers right now but we think this strategy is the right approach to take and I think it has the potential to stimulate a lot of thought and innovation within the company and within the sector.

Green growth

Indeed, one of the biggest questions Gorman and his 12-strong sustainability team at Heathrow don’t yet have all of the answers to is exactly how the airport is going to achieve that “aspirational” goal of carbon-neutral growth in flights and infrastructure following the opening of its third runway in 2026 (if all goes according to plan).

One potential method of offsetting future carbon emissions that Heathrow is exploring is the restoration of UK peatland. Bogs accounts for around 12% of the UK’s surface area but 80% of them are degraded and are therefore not sequestering any carbon from the atmosphere. Stopping these peat bogs from drying out means they would begin to capture carbon again.

Gilthorpe explains the benefits of taking such an approach: “The great thing about it is the minute you invest in peatland regeneration; the carbon footprint reduces straight away. It also carries several wider environmental benefits – you’re not only reducing carbon footprint, you’re regenerating those areas and creating new habitats for wildlife.

“We’re not completely fixed on the idea yet but it was the idea that received most traction around our leadership table. We need to complete our research and see whether or not that’s going to be where we get our biggest bang for our buck.”

Part of that carbon offsetting research will be driven by the new Centre of Excellence, which will facilitate the development of new innovations in sustainable aviation. Heathrow has put an initial £500,000 into the project, with a chunk of this money going towards academic research and the development of a funding awards scheme for SMEs and individuals with bright ideas on how to minimise noise and carbon emissions from flights.

“The initial funding will allow us to set up a network,” Gilthorpe says. “We currently have a Heathrow Academy building [which skills people up to work at the airport] and we could have something hosted within that which would be a physical Centre of Excellence. But there will also be an element of virtuality about this.”

Pace of change

The Centre of Excellence will, like many other targets outlined in the Heathrow 2.0 document, be largely driven by the airport’s controversial expansion – the level of investment required to fulfil the sustainability strategy remains largely dependent on permission to build a third runway being granted. Which begs the question: how much of this plan would remain in place if the expansion did not go ahead?

“We absolutely would have done some of this, but not all of it,” Gilthorpe replies. “Some of the things we are talking about would just not be possible if we weren’t expanding – we physically cannot expand our academy as things stand today, we wouldn’t have the business case from a financial point of view.

“The report wouldn’t be redundant if we didn’t expand, but we might have to revise some of the pace at which we delivered it. But I do believe we would be in a better place having gone through this process either way.”

And there are some shorter-term goals that Heathrow says it will achieve this year regardless of expansion. Chief among them is a pledge to source 100% renewable power for its operations by next month, as committed to through The Climate Group’s RE100 programme. This will initially be through the purchasing of Renewable Obligation Certificates from offshore wind farms, but going forward the business is looking to maximise on-site renewables, with solar PV, ground-source heat pumps and sewage waste energy all cited by Gorman as hot prospects.

The airport has also set its short-term sights on the development of more sustainable business models to reduce energy and waste – namely the sharing economy and the circular economy. This year, for example, Heathrow will be launching a new car club for passengers that promotes the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs), with the potential creation of a dedicated car-club zone in the airport’s short-term car park.

Meanwhile, the airport will this year publish a new guidance document for staff on embedding circular economy principles in procurement processes, so that every purchase decision made by Heathrow fully considers re-use and redistribution options. “What we’ve done to date I would describe as fairly standard practice,” Gorman says. “We want to stretch that and begin taking best practice on the circular economy.”

Known unknowns

So, we have the senior management buy-in and we have the ambitious targets. But to become a true sustainability ‘leader’, an organisation must look beyond its own operations and help to tackle broader issues across industry, and incentivise other businesses to make changes. Heathrow is keen to do just that: the airport has just expanded its ‘Fly Quiet’ league table, which publicly ranks airlines according to their noise, to also incorporate emissions. And on carbon-neutral growth, Gorman is keen to “have a conversation with other leading European hubs to explore if this is something we can work on collectively”.

Heathrow 2.0 is a genuine step-change in the airport’s level of ambition. This is, in essence, “a strategy fit for the future,” as Holland-Kaye writes in the document. Of course, this Strategy is relatively scant on detail as to the specific technologies and solutions that will be required to actually achieve the major targets within. Of course, it will cost a lot of money – the business will be ploughing around £40m a year into projects “where sustainability is a significant benefit”, according to Gorman. And of course, it will require constant creativity and innovation. But the airport does, at the very least, deserve respect for stepping up and making such an ambitious, public commitment in a sector that has not been eager to embrace the reality of carbon cuts.

As the three wise men of Kingfisher, M&S and Unilever have all proved, setting bold targets that you don’t know exactly how to reach is the first step to sustainability leadership. To reach these new targets, Heathrow is now fuelled by the greatest motivator of them all: the unknown.

Luke Nicholls

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