Heathrow 'on-track' for carbon-neutral expansion

Heathrow Airport has claimed that it is "on-track" to meet its flagship ambition of becoming a "carbon-neutral" facility by 2020 and achieving net-zero carbon status for its planned expansion, after increasing its investments in renewable power and beginning peatland restoration last year.

Heathrow first unveiled its plans for carbon-neutral expansion in 2017

Heathrow first unveiled its plans for carbon-neutral expansion in 2017

The airport posted the progress in its 2018 sustainability report, which was published this morning (13 May). It reveals that Heathrow switched to renewable gas for heating in Terminal 2 last year, following its airport-wide switch to 100% renewable electricity in 2017. This has made Terminal 2 the company’s first building to be powered with 100% clean heat and electricity.

The document also emphasises Heathrow’s foray into peatland restoration, which the firm has always touted as a key component of Heathrow 2.0 – its sustainability strategy for carbon-neutral expansion. The company partnered with Lancashire Wildlife Trust and Defra on its first peatland restoration project last autumn, with the sustainability report revealing that a total of 70 hectares of the habitat are set to be restored under the scheme.

In order to achieve its carbon-neutral ambitions for 2020 – and to drive progress towards its 2050 goal of operating with zero-carbon infrastructure - Heathrow last year published a roadmap detailing its plans for electric aircraft, alternative fuels, carbon offsetting and other low-carbon projects. The sustainability report confirms that Heathrow will use this framework to develop a “slot strategy with carbon efficiency as its core principle” this year, while using the roadmap to advocate for more ambitious and joined-up action from policymakers and other aviation sector stakeholders.

Further actions to be taken during 2019 include the development of a second peatland restoration project, the creation of a portfolio of carbon offsets and the publication of a forecast for residual emissions beyond 2020. The forecast will be used to help Heathrow plan and budget for its offsetting requirements. Given that 89% of the facility’s carbon emissions were accounted for by aircraft cruising during 2018, and that solutions such as electric passenger aircraft and low-carbon fuels are not yet widely used, offsetting is set to form a key part of its strategy for years to come.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report clearly sets out the benefits of keeping global temperature rises below 1.5C, and the risks if we do not,” Heathrow’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye said.

“Aviation should not be the problem. We need to eliminate carbon from our sector and ensure that future generations have a world worth travelling and can continue to fly. I am clear that we must use our influence to move the global aviation industry to net-zero emissions by the middle of the century. We have made a start, but we need to increase the rate of change.”

Decarbonisation challenges

While Heathrow is on course to meet its overarching carbon ambitions, the sustainability report also reveals that it is off-track to miss – or already has missed – several other environmental and social targets.

It had, for example, set a 2030 target for half of passenger journeys to be made by public transport, with an interim aim of 43% during 2018. It missed this interim target, recording a 40.6% of passenger journeys made by public transport last year – blaming this challenge on delays to Crossrail and the growing popularity of ride-hailing services such as Uber.

According to the report, Heathrow is additionally off-track with plans to trial 25 green innovations at its Centre For Excellence, which has operated as a test bed for clean technologies and concepts since early 2018, by 2025. In a bid to overcome this stalled progress, the airport will this year publish a five-year strategy for the Centre and invest, through the platform, in four innovations this year.

Net-zero pathway

The publication of the report comes shortly after the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published its advice on how the UK Government can legislate for net-zero national carbon emissions by 2050, requested by Ministers in the wake of the IPCC’s findings.

The framework, which the CCC claims can be delivered within the same cost envelope as the existing Climate Change Act, involves bringing the 2040 ban on new petrol and diesel car sales forward to 2035; quadrupling the UK’s renewables capacity; rolling out carbon capture and storage (CCS) at scale and rewilding 20,000 hectares of land annually.

It also requires international aviation and shipping, which are currently excluded from the UK’s carbon accounting, to be included in all carbon budgeting. The CCC does not believe that aviation and maritime shipping are incompatible with net-zero but argues that much more needs to be done to decarbonise these areas.

Heathrow’s Holland-Kaye shares this view and has been using the airport to develop (and incentivise the use of) electric aircraft and alternative fuels.  

However, critics have argued that the UK will not achieve net-zero while enabling the expansion of Heathrow, which will enable an extra 267,000 flight movements annually. The UK Government had been taken to court by a coalition of Greenpeace, the mayor of London and local councils over the anticipated increase in noise and pollution that the third runway would introduce. Friends of the Earth also filed a claim against the expansion, but the High Court dismissed all claims against the airport's plans by arguing that the Paris Agreement is not part of UK law. 

Earlier this year, Heathrow won edie’s coveted Mission Possible Sustainable Business of the Year award at the Sustainability Leaders Awards in London. Judges praised the firm’s industry-leading approach that had cemented sustainability as a crucial topic across the organisation.

Sarah George



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