Airports of Tomorrow (AoT): World Economic Forum initiative to decarbonise aviation

Posted: 14 September 2023 | | No comments yet

For International Airport Review, Laia Barbarà, the Industry Decarbonisation Lead for Aviation at the World Economic Forum, discussed how the initiative, Airports of Tomorrow, will help accelerate aviation to Net Zero by 2050.

World Economic Forum Airports of Tomorrow

Accelerating decarbonisation with World Economic Forum. CREDIT: WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM

In an increasingly interconnected world, airports play a pivotal role in shaping the economy and fostering international cooperation. As the world faces pressing challenges like climate change and the need for sustainable development, the World Economic Forum, in partnership with ACI World, has launched its new aviation flagship initiative: Airports of Tomorrow (AoT), envisioning a transformative and sustainable future for the aviation industry.

With thousands of employees and passengers using the premises every day, airports can be considered small cities of their own and interact with many of the stakeholders of the aviation ecosystem: aircraft manufacturers, fuel producers and providers and financial institutions. AoT recognises airports as natural conveners, bringing together all aviation stakeholders to drive sustainable practices and embrace the green transition.

The airport ecosystem: where all aviation stakeholders meet

Airports have long been recognised as essential nodes in the global transportation network. Beyond their role in facilitating passenger travel and cargo transport, airports have evolved into complex ecosystems comprising numerous stakeholders, such as airlines, airport authorities, ground service providers, and the local communities they serve. The AoT initiative acknowledges this interconnectedness and seeks to leverage it for collective action on sustainability and innovation.

With the Airport Ecosystem encompassing everyone in the aviation value chain, AoT fosters collaboration and knowledge sharing among stakeholders to address shared challenges and goals. By encouraging dialogue and cooperation, AoT endeavours to enhance efficiency and sustainability across the industry.

This initiative brings public and private stakeholders to the table to drive unprecedented collaboration and change in the sector and to maximise its potential as a vehicle for economic growth and environmental prosperity. With the focus on the airport ecosystem, AoT highlights its significance in uniting various players in the value chain, the emphasis on Scope 3 emissions through sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), and the role airports play as energy hubs in transitioning to a greener aviation infrastructure. As well as this, it promotes the sustainable finance mechanisms to support transition.

Scope 3 emissions: the role of sustainable aviation fuels

Scope 3 emissions refer to indirect emissions produced as a result of an organisation’s activities but occur in value chains. For the aviation industry, these emissions are primarily attributed to aircraft fuel consumption, making them a significant contributor to the industry’s overall carbon footprint. Recognising the need for urgent action on climate change, AoT places special emphasis on reducing Scope 3 emissions through the widespread adoption of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs).

SAFs offer a promising alternative to conventional jet fuels as they are produced from renewable sources like agricultural waste, biomass or hydrogen. Unlike traditional fossil-based fuels, SAFs can substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOX). Moreover, SAFs have the potential to be used in existing aircraft engines without the need for significant modifications.

The adoption of SAFs has been limited due to various factors, including higher production costs and limited availability. However, the AoT initiative seeks to accelerate their adoption by fostering partnerships between airlines, fuel producers, financial institutions and governments. By encouraging investment and research in SAF production and distribution, AoT aims to drive down costs and make these fuels more accessible to the aviation industry by 2030.

Type of questions to be addressed in this AoT pillar of work include:

  • What regulatory frameworks best foster the scale-up of SAF before 2030?
  • Where will the new SAF plants need by 2030 have to be located to meet jet fuel demand?

From passenger hubs to energy hubs

The transition to a sustainable aviation infrastructure extends beyond the use of cleaner fuels. Airports themselves can play a central role in the green transition by becoming energy hubs. Traditionally, airports have been energy consumers, heavily reliant on fossil fuels for electricity and heating. However, the AoT initiative envisions a paradigm shift where airports transition to self-sustaining entities that generate and store their own renewable energy.

By integrating solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable energy sources on the airside, airports can significantly reduce their carbon footprint and even become net zero energy consumers. Surplus energy can be stored in advanced battery systems, providing a stable power supply during peak hours or emergencies.

Furthermore, airports can act as energy distribution centres, supplying clean energy to neighbouring communities and even to the aviation sector itself. Electric ground service equipment, such as baggage tugs and aircraft pushback tractors, can be charged using the airport’s renewable energy resources, reducing emissions on the ground.

Types of questions AoT will address in this workstream include:

  • What is the renewable energy production and storage capacity for the airside at airports?
  • What is a reasonable timeline for the adoption of hydrogen and battery storage infrastructure at airports?

The green transition: capital relocation and investment

The green transition within the aviation industry is undoubtedly ambitious, requiring substantial capital relocation and investment. The AoT initiative recognises this challenge and seeks to mobilise financial resources from both public and private sectors. Governments, multilateral organisations, and financial institutions are encouraged to support sustainable aviation projects through funding, grants and incentives.

Moreover, investors are increasingly recognising the importance of sustainable practices in the aviation sector. As the industry shifts towards greener alternatives, investments in companies that demonstrate a commitment to sustainability and reducing Scope 3 emissions are likely to yield attractive returns in the long run.

The type of topics to be addressed in this workstream include:

  • Bringing clarity to the financing options for airports depending on their size, geography and ownership model
  • Providing certainty to governments and investors to help make new green solutions bankable.

Looking ahead

The Airports of Tomorrow initiative by the World Economic Forum heralds an exciting era for the aviation industry, where airports serve as natural conveners and are placed at the core of the decarbonisation challenge, uniting stakeholders in a shared mission of sustainability and innovation. By emphasising the reduction of Scope 3 emissions through the adoption of SAFs and the transition to energy hubs, airports can play a vital role in the global effort to combat climate change.

As airports embrace sustainability, they become not only gateways to the world but also symbols of responsible global citizenship, driving positive change for future generations and the planet. The Airports of Tomorrow initiative will pave the runway for a more sustainable and interconnected world.    

About the author

Laia Barbarà

Laia Barbarà is the Industry Decarbonisation Lead for Aviation at the World Economic Forum, working to decarbonise hard-to-abate sectors and achieve net zero flying. She is an Aerospace Engineer and holds a PhD in Climate Change Mitigation. Laia counts with experience supporting the transition to a net zero economy within the UN system and across the public, private and academic sectors.

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