Latest news and insights from Australia’s airports

Sustainability leadership to help travellers “fly better”

Sydney Airport chief executive officer Geoff Culbert has called on airports and airlines to join forces to better inform the travelling public about the many initiatives being taken to cut carbon emissions.

Culbert said the aviation industry had an opportunity to not only respond to changing customer demand but show genuine leadership when it came to sustainability.

He said his sense was that people would want to continue to fly because of the enormous benefits aviation had delivered globally to the economy and to humanity by making the world smaller.

He told the Australian Airports Association conference on the Gold Coast that while he did not believe people would want to give up those advantages, he did think people would want to “fly better”.

“They want to know that the carbon footprint generated from taking flights is reducing and they want to know that the aviation industry is doing all it can to help achieve that goal,’’ he said.

“And we need to show everyone that we are doing that. We need to set targets and we need commit to hitting those targets.

“We can’t be drowned out by the narrative around flight shaming.

Culbert said the industry was doing “a lot of good stuff” in sustainability but he was not sure it was doing a good enough job of getting the message out and telling its story.

“We need to work on that and we can work on that here together, locally, as an aviation industry,” he said.

Describing himself as climate change believer, Culbert also outlined some of the initiatives Sydney Airport was taking to become a leader in sustainability.

The airport has set itself an ambitious goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2025, something Culbert described as being “critically important in terms of putting a stake in the ground”.

This involves a three-pillar sustainability strategy that includes being an ethically responsible and sustainable business and working closely with local communities to protect the environment in and around the airport.

“These aren’t just words on a page, we have multiple initiatives under each of these three pillars,” he added.

The airport boss outlined three flagship initiatives that management believed were making “a real difference”.

The first of these was building climate resilience into its assets to minimise its carbon footprint. This included setting an ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2025 which was “critically important in terms of putting a stake in the ground”.

It was also investing in electrification of its vehicle fleet and was planning for its landside busses to be 100 per cent electric by 2021.

“Thirdly, we continue to look for ways to operate the airspace and the airfield more efficiently to minimise our carbon footprint.

“And these include things like optimising the movement of aircraft on the ground to reduce taxiing and holding and ensuring efficient gate turnarounds.”

Culbert noted management had been forced to think differently about its approach to sustainability, including the way it resourced its programs.

Historically, responsibility for sustainability had fallen to someone who had to do it on top of their day job.

“Last year, we made a deliberate decision to build a dedicated team and recruit trained environmental professionals from both within and outside the aviation industry who could bring us specific knowledge and capability and importantly a new perspective,” he said.

“In the past 12 months, we’ve doubled the size of our sustainability team and we’ve made the head of sustainability one of the most senior positions in our organisation. “And – no surprises – since we made that decision, we’ve made significant improvements in our sustainability performance.”

This included a 30.9 per cent reduction since 2010 in carbon emissions intensity per passenger, putting the airport well on its way to being carbon neutral by 2025.

Projects that had helped this included electrification of vehicles, solar panels in car parks, ground-based power for aircraft, LED lighting and efficient cooling systems.

The airport currently recycled more than 42 per cent of the waste created in terminals and offices and almost 25 per cent of water used on site was recycled.

Initiatives to drive this further included the elimination of single-use plastic bags and plastic straws, a 20 per cent targeted reduction in waste to landfill.

“One of the areas we’re focusing on is recycling coffee cups,” Culbert said. “Over 5 million cups of coffee are sold at Sydney Airport every year. That’s a lot of coffee so recycling the cups represents a really important opportunity.”

While these things all added up and made a difference, Culbert said it was two big initiatives that were really “moving the dial for us”.

The first was a power purchase agreement that came into effect earlier this year with one Australia’s biggest energy retailers and one its biggest wind farm developers.

Under the agreement, Sydney airport was now taking 75 per cent of its energy from a dedicated windfarm.

The seven-year agreement supported the construction of a windfarm in NSW with 37 wind turbines and 135 megawatts of capacity to more broadly support the development of renewable energy in Australia.

“And here’s the best bit: not only is it really innovative by way of structure, and not only will it reduce our carbon footprint but it will also materially reduce our costs,” he said. “And I’m talking millions of dollars each year.”

Culbert said he was confident advancing battery technology would see a time when the airport was powered by 100 per cent renewable energy.

The second initiative was a $1.4 billion, award-winning sustainability-linked loan announced in May this year which linked the cost of capital to the sustainability performance.

“In short, the way it works is that we’ve set ourselves overall sustainability targets – if we hit those targets, the interest that we pay on the loan goes down; if we miss those targets the interest on the loan goes up.

“And when you’re talking about interest on $1.4 billion of debt that’s a material amount of money.”

The loan was independently audited and the metrics were all objective and tangible.

“It’s the largest loan of this nature in the Asia-Pacific and the largest of its kind for the airport in the world,” he said.

“It means our sustainability is now embedded in the way that we do business and it gives the ability to objectively measure in financial terms the value of our sustainability initiatives.”

The airport is also working to drive down emissions across the industry with Scope 3 initiatives that include ground-based power to airlines and work to increase the use of Pre-conditioned air.

“We’re really pleased to be working with our partners on these initiatives because this an aviation industry challenge,” Culbert said. “It’s not an airport challenge it’s not an airline challenge –it’s an industry challenge.

“Together we’re helping to reduce the carbon footprint across the entire industry and we’ll continue to look for ways to help our airline partners meet their own sustainability targets and goals.”

The airport’s efforts have been recognised globally and it was rated fourth in the world by Sustainalytics, eighth in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for transport infrastructure and AAA by equity provider MCSI, which put it in the top 10 per cent of infrastructure globally.

By Steve Creedy

About Steve Creedy

An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.

Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.


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