Peatland restoration and electric planes: Inside Heathrow's new roadmap for net-zero expansion

EXCLUSIVE: After launching a roadmap outlining how it will ensure its expansion is carbon-neutral ahead of the opening of its third runway in 2026, Heathrow Airport is exploring ways in which it can sell ecosystem restoration services as well as flights.

Heathrow's expansion will enable an additional 52 million passengers to travel annually and accomodate an additional 267,000 flights each year

Heathrow's expansion will enable an additional 52 million passengers to travel annually and accomodate an additional 267,000 flights each year

Launched today (3 December) at a roundtable event in London, Heathrow’s new plan sets out four key areas in which the airport will take action to reduce both its direct and indirect emissions, before offsetting the remainder accounted for by its upcoming expansion, under its Heathrow 2.0 sustainability strategy.

The strategy, which launched in February 2017 and lists 200 targets, includes a headline aim of ensuring that growth accounted for by the construction of the airport’s third runway is carbon-neutral.

The roadmap fleshes out this aim, explaining that Heathrow will work to address emissions caused by flights during cruise, which accounted for 89% of its carbon footprint in 2016, by incentivising the uptake of both cleaner aircraft technologies and alternative fuels.

The technology proportion of the roadmap includes Heathrow’s recently-announced commitment to waive landing fees for the world’s first electric aircraft and the continuation of its ranking of airlines by carbon and noise pollution, alongside a new commitment to allocate landing slots based on aircraft emissions.

Meanwhile, the fuel section includes an ambition for Heathrow to become “a leading hub for the development and deployment of sustainable aviation fuels” – an aim the roadmap states it will achieve by supporting airlines such as Virgin Atlantic in their development of closed-loop fuels derived from waste.

The roadmap also details plans for Heathrow to help policymakers in modernising UK airspace in order to drive fuel efficiency and includes a pledge for the company to “develop and promote” new ways of offsetting carbon – a move which comes shortly after the company partnered with Lancashire Wildlife Trust and Defra on its first peatland restoration project.

Speaking at the launch of the roadmap, Heathrow’s director of sustainability Matt Gorman said the company would use such peatland projects to develop a “market” for ecosystem restoration services, selling such services to other companies in a bid to fund some of its decarbonisation activities.

“We think that UK peatland projects have the potential to be a very cost-effective way of offsetting carbon, and one which also delivers other benefits including increased biodiversity, flood risk reduction and improving downstream water quality,” Gorman said.

“If we could stack the benefits and market them to a developer who wants biodiversity investment of some sort, or water companies which are interested in water quality, you could lower the cost of such a project to any one individual.”

Peatland is believed to cover around 10% of the UK – but around 80% of this habitat is currently degraded, meaning it is incapable of sequestering carbon. Gorman estimates that if all peatland nationwide were restored, it would sequester 16 million tonnes of carbon annually – the equivalent to emissions generated by all of Heathrow’s departing flights each year.

While Heathrow will also purchase carbon credits accounting for renewable energy and reforestation projects across the globe, the company’s head of emissions Andrew Chen explained that UK-based projects had the benefits of being more easily verifiable and “visible” to stakeholders.

The peatland project near Manchester, for example, was inspected by Gorman and Chen themselves, with its benefits set to be tracked using Defra metrics.

Heathrow is notably the first airport in the world to simultaneously hold four certifications from the Carbon Trust Standard. However, it is yet to release information detailing how much it will spend on offsetting under Heathrow 2.0, or how much land it will restore or reforest. 

New science, higher ambitions

Another key discussion point of the roundtable was whether Heathrow will explore whether it can align its entire operations with a 1.5C trajectory, after the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report laid bare the benefits of reducing warming to 1.5C rather than 2C, as originally specified under the Paris Agreement.

Gorman explained that the roadmap would “absolutely have to be kept under review”, with Heathrow prepared to set even more ambitious targets if Ministers ratify a UK-wide net-zero emissions target for 2050.

“The scientific advice is saying that the world economy needs to reach net-zero by around the middle of the century, which is a fundamental challenge for any sector,” Gorman said.

“We recognise that the debate in this area is moving quickly – the Paris Agreement was a very significant foundation and the recent IPCC report has underlined both the huge benefits of limiting warming to 1.5C and the urgency needed to achieve that.”

In order to update its strategy as quickly as possible, Heathrow’s sustainability team are lobbying for the UK Government to announce a 2050 decarbonisation target for the aviation sector “as soon as it is feasible,” Chen added.

The year ahead

As well as exploring the possibility of a more ambitious 1.5C alignment, another key move for Heathrow in 2019 will be to officially launch its Centre of Excellence for Sustainability, which has operated as a test bed for green innovations since early 2018.

The centre will bring together researchers, innovators and industry experts, who will work together to co-create solutions to some of aviation’s biggest sustainability challenges. It will also play host to an annual green innovation competition, with winners offered £20,000 to scale up their ideas and test them onsite.

2019 will additionally see the launch of the official consultation into Heathrow’s expansion, Gorman confirmed. If MPs agree on a final decision on the construction of a third runway on time, the planning process should be complete by the end of 2020 and the runway finished in 2026, he added.

The expansion has come under much scrutiny from the public, NGOs and MPs, with the Environmental Audit Committee arguing that the increase in flights would "create a black hole" in future carbon budgets. 

Responding such criticism, Gorman argued that expansion - both of the airport and the global aviation sector - was a key motivator for Heathrow's ambition to decarbonise, forcing it to place increased importance on its environmental impacts. 

“In the hypothetical scenario that we weren’t growing, we would still look to be active in the [emissions reduction] debate – but the real focus for any industry comes if you are growing at a pace,” Gorman concluded.

“Around the world, we are increasingly seeing the aviation industry develop cleaner fleets as it grows - rather than saying that they are going to buy second-hand or fuel-inefficient aircraft, airlines are saying they will invest in newer and cleaner models.

“At Heathrow, we are saying that we have a particular role to play because airlines will generally want to put their newest aircraft on routes which we offer. In this respect, we can incentivise the next generation of technology and set higher standards.”

Sarah George


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