Polluting the planet before you take off

London’s Heathrow airport: A European airport may emit as much greenhouse gas as a city of 100,000 people
Image: Fingalo Christian Bickel via Wikimedia Commons

Airports are disastrously inefficient buildings which belch greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and contribute hugely to climate change, a European study has found. LONDON, 7 August – Airlines are under increasing pressure to use more efficient aircraft to reduce the damage the industry is doing to the planet as it continues to grow. In its defence the industry says it produces only 2% of the world’s carbon dioxide, and 12% of the total from the transport industry, and that it is therefore a tiny problem compared with private cars which produce 74% of transport’s CO2. But in this battle of statistics the role of airports, the vast air-conditioned waiting rooms and shopping malls containing thousands of waiting passengers, has not so far been taken into account. Now a European Union study has shown that Europe’s 500 airports in the 28 member countries together emit as much CO2 as a city of 50 million people. The paper says airport buildings are disastrously inefficient structures which produce large quantities of greenhouse gases. Big airports each have emissions equal those of a city of 100,000 people. With new airports and vast terminals being built across the planet at an ever-increasing rate to provide for booming international tourism as well as business travel, pressure is bound to grow on the industry to improve its performance. In a bid to try to curb the problem the EU has begun a three-year programme costing more than €3 million (US$4m) to try to get the continent’s largest airports to be less wasteful of energy. The plan is to cut emissions by 20% over the period the programme runs.

Cheap and easy

The problem is the heating, ventilation and air conditioning plants which consume half the energy used in each airport. The EU’s solution is to use computers to control the plants so that faults are detected immediately and waste is kept to a minimum by careful management. Two Italian airports, Fiumicino in Rome and Malpensa in Milan, used by 55 million people a year, agreed to act as pilots to see if the scheme would work. The engineers concentrated on the large air conditioning units, chiller plants and cooling towers at the airports. They found equipment running when it was not needed, incorrect heating and cooling settings, poor positioning of sensors and poor maintenance. Just by simple inexpensive measures like re-setting heating controls and replacing faulty sensors, each airport could save 3,500 tonnes of CO2 and €70,000 a year, the study found. The project coordinator, Nicolas Réhault, head of group building performance optimization at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg, Germany, said the same software could be applied to other complex buildings and save large quantities of energy and the subsequent emissions.

False comparison

He explained: “Airports are very complex infrastructures. We have gained a lot of know-how on how these infrastructures work. This can be replicated to other highly complex buildings such as hospitals and banks. And it could be downscaled to simpler things, too.” Already Airports Council International is so impressed by the results that it has undertaken to demonstrate the results of the pilot project to the biggest 400 of Europe’s airports in an attempt to get them to adopt the system. The project will no doubt help the European Commission’s goals in reducing is overall carbon dioxide emissions. But this focus on airports’ wasteful use of energy will also increase pressure on the industry to improve its performance. Already the simple use of quantities of emissions from each source – aircraft, trains and cars, for example – is not a fair comparison of their contribution to climate change. For example, aviation is said to be more damaging because its emissions are high in the atmosphere and cause contrails which trap heat. Environmental groups are likely to factor in the role of airports in increasing emissions when lobbying governments to take some action on aviation in future climate talks. – Climate News Network