20 April 2017
By Rosa Shirm
Carbon emissions: where does the responsibility end?
The recent launch of Heathrow’s revamped sustainability strategy ‘Heathrow 2.0’ sets some big, bold ambitions in its effort to become the most sustainable airport in the world. Following suit of airport best practice, the whole airport will operate on 100% renewable energy by April this year. In addition, airside vehicles will be electric and hydrogen powered, to operate within the airport’s designated ‘ultra-low emission zone’. Heathrow endeavour to become zero carbon by 2050, and are targeting a carbon neutral third runway. Innovative carbon off-setting measures such as peat land restoration are actively being considered.
Perhaps the ‘Centre of Excellence’ that facilitates research on sustainable innovation, rumoured to cost a six-figure sum, will help to distract from the elephant in the room? That is, the carbon impact of the estimated 260,000 extra flights landing annually at Heathrow, facilitated by the new runway.
An overview of direct and indirect emissions across the value chain
Source: Carbon Trust
Heathrow 2.0 presents a strong case for the minimisation of emissions from sources owned or controlled by Heathrow, known as ‘direct emissions’. A weaker case is made for the indirect emissions; those that are a consequence of Heathrow’s activities, but that occur at sources owned or controlled by another organisation, namely the airlines. The reliance on airlines themselves to address the emissions from aircrafts separate from the airport quickly weakens Heathrow’s carbon neutral sustainability case. But is it right to be directing our frustration of increased aircraft emissions towards Heathrow? Should the responsibility rest solely on the airlines’ mitigation methods or should Heathrow be taking a greater share of the responsibility as they are facilitating the additional aircraft?
When it comes to establishing the boundaries of responsibility for the production of indirect carbon emissions, it can cause controversy, even at an international scale. In many western countries, an ever increasing demand for goods and services is often met by imports from other areas of the world. Yet current emission accounting is focussed on emissions related to production only. On this basis, countries are able to import carbon intensive products without assuming any responsibility for the associated, indirect carbon emissions. Should the responsibility not extend to the countries facilitating the production of the goods and services in the first place?
Life cycle analysis techniques have the power to significantly influence the awareness and allocation of responsibility of indirect carbon emissions. Accounting for the embodied carbon recognises both the direct and indirect emissions by considering goods and services within a ‘cradle to grave’ context. Obtusely, indirect operational and maintenance carbon is not often considered within the life cycle analysis. Yet, this is needed to understand a development’s carbon impact in its entirety.
Heathrow are taking responsibility for the indirect carbon emissions during construction, namely the embodied carbon of the new runway, but should they be doing more to address the indirect operational emissions arising from the aircraft? Taking ownership of indirect carbon emissions, whether at a project or a country scale, places additional pressure on organisations and governments to innovate. As we approach the tipping point of the 2 degrees rise in global temperature, it is essential that those actors with the power and resources to influence change take greater responsibility and are held accountable.