Swedavia is the first airport group to achieve net zero CO2 emissions


Airports have always been regarded by eco-warriors as a legitimate target, and before the COVID-19 pandemic the general public had shown signs of reappraising their own needs and wants where airports are concerned, in favour of the environmental and against the hedonistic.

Now, as airports begin at least to contemplate and re-evaluate their role when business starts up again, they are faced with the conundrum posed by encouraging that new business - ensuring a healthy passage through their corridors for their clients and satisfying demands on sustainability that have not gone away. (Akin to balancing on a tightrope on one foot, blinded by a PPE mask, carrying a bottle of duty free in one hand and a gallon of aviation bio-fuel in the other.)

One big airport operator, Swedavia, has made its decision on priorities. Although it has hardly any passengers, it is delighted to tell the world that it has not only achieved complete carbon neutrality, but that it has done so three decades before it was required to.

  • Airports face renewed uncertainty over sustainability, on top of pandemic concerns.
  • Sweden's main airport operator, Swedavia, has achieved complete carbon neutrality three decades ahead of schedule.
  • Other airports will feel pressure to match Swedavia's sustainability efforts while struggling to rebuild their businesses.
  • 341 airports worldwide have official carbon accreditation.
  • State aid guidelines in Europe need to be amended to support sustainability projects in airports.
  • Public expectations of airports will prioritize health and environmental performance over luxury amenities.


  • Airports face renewed uncertainty over sustainability, on top of pandemic concerns.
  • Sweden's main airport operator completes a 10-year project to become carbon neutral.
  • Other airports will feel obliged to up their game to this standard…while they struggle to build up their businesses again.
  • 341 airports worldwide now have official carbon 'accreditation'.
  • State aid guidelines in Europe need to be amended in order to cater for the pandemic/environmental impact on airports.
  • At least public expectations of airports will not be so high, other than for the way that they perform from health and environmental perspectives.

Health and sustainability will be all that matters at airports

Two stark issues face the global airport community.

First and foremost at present, of course, is the health situation. Suddenly most people have become health addicts, and view everything they do from that angle. 'Hands, Face, Space' to use the buzzwords favoured by the British government, and their equivalent elsewhere, will be a mantra ingrained in the mind of the populace for years to come.

The cost of providing for it is not going away, and will continue to mount.

But neither is the little matter of sustainability going away - that is taking a short break. But if some campaigners, who think they have aviation on the run right now (with barely a contrail to be seen in the sky), sense an opportunity to deliver a fatal blow to airlines and airports alike, they will seize it.

That is one reason why airports that are hosting virtually no passengers at the moment are preparing for a sustainable future, putting into practice schemes they developed before the pandemic in the hope that they will ward off the next wave of challenges from the environmental lobby.

Solar panels have made their mark in the past five years

That sustainability can come in a variety of guises.

For example, and as CAPA has reported frequently - by way of the installation of solar panel fields. The first airport to generate 100% of its own electricity by this method (and even to return some to the national grid) was Cochin in India, more than five years ago.

Since then, others around the world have been able to achieve that goal, even where the sun doesn't shine that much, as the technology has improved.

See: Airports & the environment: Solar power begins generating stellar savings. Part 2 - operating issues

Zero carbon emissions remain the great aspiration

But zero carbon emissions are the Holy Grail, and Sweden is a case in point. With Sweden as the acknowledged home of environmental activism, air transport service providers in the Scandinavian country are right in the firing line, and consequently obliged to respond accordingly.

And to be fair - that is exactly what they are doing.

Swedavia goes from 8000 tonnes of emissions per annum to zero in a decade; 30 years before it has to

Swedavia, the operator of 10 airports in Sweden, including both the Stockholm airports, Gothenburg Landvetter and Malmö (i.e. the three biggest cities), has announced by way of its 2020 sustainability report that it has reached zero net emissions from its airport operations at all of them (or has become "fossil free", as it put it).

The company reduced its net emissions from approximately 8000 tonnes per annum a decade ago by switching to renewable energy sources and using electric and bio-gas airport vehicles.

Swedavia invested nearly SEK650 million (EUR64.8 million) in reducing emissions between 2015 and 2020.

Active airports for Swedavia

This is claimed to be a world first for an airport group, and also makes Swedavia the first company to deliver on the European airport industry pledge to become 'Net Zero' by 2050 at the latest, and the first to do it 30 years early.

But now the pressure is on other airports to step up to the plate, especially in the Nordic countries

The downside, if there is one, is that other airport operators - be they measured individually, within country boundaries, within size parameters, by domestic or international groups or whatever - are going to come under increasing pressure to copy Swedavia, at the expense of the other side of the equation, which is building up business again.

And that pressure is going to be felt most strongly in the other, neighbouring, Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland.

Some of them, especially Norway, had already begun to rise to the challenge with their own strict airport environmental programmes, and that country is also one of the leaders in the development of electric aircraft, with a deadline for all domestic services to be flown only by those aircraft.

Further south, the Royal Schiphol Group announced at the beginning of Apr-2021 that Eindhoven Airport, Rotterdam The Hague Airport and Groningen Eelde Airport are planning to test the feasibility, potential and handling of electric flights, with the objective of facilitating scheduled flights with aircraft powered by electricity to connect regions and to create a dense network within Europe.

It is expected that the first electric passenger flights will be operated between airports in the Netherlands within five years.

'Staggering back' to normal is the best outcome the industry can look forward to

Before the pandemic set in, 'ESG' (Environmental, Social and Governance') activities were becoming the primary boardroom topic within most industries, and including aviation, even usurping the bottom line in the pecking order.

It looks as if that will continue to be the case as the industry staggers back into the half-life that will be the reality for the next couple of years or so. And in Swedavia's case, 'staggering back' is what it will do.

A passenger traffic 'growth' chart for all its airports since 2015 reveals no growth since 2018, initially down to the impact of higher air taxes, which were imposed for environmental reasons.

In 2019 traffic declined by 4.4% and would have continued in that direction despite the pandemic, which led to a -74.5% reduction in 2020 and one of -88.4% in the first two months of 2021. Stockholm Arlanda, the main gateway and hub, underwent a 74% reduction in Mar-2021 - a month in which, during the previous year, traffic had already been heavily reduced by the pandemic.

It is a long way back from there, with one of the main airlines, Norwegian, struggling to restructure and SAS, which was never in the best of health, flying with 30% load factors.

Swedavia annual passenger numbers and growth, 2015-2021 (Jan to Feb YTD)

In a detailed examination of the action it has taken, Swedavia says it wants to be a driving force in reducing climate impact, and is now extending its work in this field to supporting other companies and organisations at its airports in transforming their operations, with a special focus on "reducing the climate impact of the Swedish aviation industry."

As a result of its work, all of the airports today are powered by, and heated, and cooled with renewable energy. Back-up power units run on renewable fuel, and Swedavia's fleet of vehicles runs on electricity or renewable fuel.

As long ago as 2006, Swedavia became climate-neutral, and in 2011 the goal was set to reduce emissions of fossil carbon dioxide from its own operations to zero by the end of 2020.

The first airports to reach this goal were Ronneby Airport in Jan-2017, followed by Visby Airport (the only offshore island airport) and Luleå Airport during 2018.

Renewable heating and 'fossil-free' vehicles have done the business

Switching to renewable heating in buildings and making the company's fleet of vehicles fossil-free have had the greatest impact.

Today Swedavia owns approximately 800 vehicles, and almost 300 of them are at Stockholm Arlanda Airport. Nearly half of the fleet now runs on electricity, and other vehicles run on renewable fuels, such as bio-gas. Between 2015 and 2020 alone, Swedavia invested nearly SEK650 million (EUR64.3 million) in a renewed, fossil-free vehicle fleet.

Swedavia's goal now is "to enable aviation's climate change transition through investments in bio aviation fuel and by preparing our airports for electric aviation. Swedavia's strategic goal is for at least 5% renewable aviation fuel to be used for refuelling at Swedish airports by 2025[,] and Swedavia actively promotes the use of bio aviation fuel, which reduces emissions of fossil carbon dioxide by up to 85%".

Among other initiatives, Swedavia purchases bio aviation fuel equivalent to the amount used for the company's own business travel and invites other companies and organisations to take part each year in a coordinated tender so that they too can buy such bio aviation fuel.

Swedavia also helps to fund the additional cost for airlines that choose to refuel with bio aviation fuel at Swedavia's airports.

ACI's carbon accreditation scheme has racked up 341 airports globally at different levels

Airports Council International Europe (ACI Europe) is a supporter of measures such as these and was the first to congratulate Swedavia on its achievement.

ACI Europe has its carbon accreditation programme 'Airport Carbon Accreditation' (ACA), which is owned and governed by ACI Europe in close cooperation with four ACI regions and with the support of ACI World. The programme is administered by WSP, an environmental consultancy.

ACA has six levels of accreditation, reflecting how "airports are at different points on the journey to becoming cleaner and more efficient."

To apply for certification at one of the levels of the programme, airports must have their carbon footprints independently verified in accordance with ISO14064 (Greenhouse Gas Accounting) by one of the verifiers approved by the programme administrator. It is the only institutionally endorsed, carbon management certification standard for airports, and there are currently 341 airports across the world at different stages of accreditation.

Swedavia has been actively involved in the development of Airport Carbon Accreditation since 2007/2008 as a group, when it was the first to be certified at any level and all of Swedavia's airports are now individually certified at level 3+ [carbon neutrality]). Also included in the scheme are many of the airports operated by the French firm EDEIS, also Fraport, VINCI and two of the main Mexican airport operating groups.

ACA accredited airports

Recent accreditations include:

(13-Apr-2021). Aena (Spain) announced that Madrid Barajas Airport and Barcelona-El Prat Josep Tarradellas Airport had earned Level 3 carbon accreditation from ACI for efforts to achieve carbon neutrality by 2026.

(07-Apr-2021). Aeroporti di Roma reported that Rome Fiumicino and Rome Ciampino airports had obtained the highest ACI Europe certification - Airport Carbon Accreditation 4+ "Transition" - for the reduction of direct and indirect CO2 emissions at airports.

The airports are the first to receive accreditation at this level from ACI Europe. They are the first airports to achieve the accreditation in Europe and the fourth and fifth in the world, along with Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport and Christchurch International Airport.

ACI attempts to convince the EU to change guidelines on state aid for sustainability projects

At the moment ACI Europe is actively involved in a campaign to convince the European Commission's (EC) Directorate General for Competition to revise state aid guidelines immediately to permit the funding of sustainability projects - particularly those aimed at decarbonisation.

Specifically, ACI EUROPE has called on the EC to ensure that airports can effectively benefit from the EUR672.5 billion EU Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) to finance sustainability and digitalisation projects.

According to EU regulations, airport investment under the RRF must comply with the 2014 aviation state aid guidelines, which forbid investment aid to medium sized and larger airports and set limits for aid to smaller airports. ACI stated that due to these limits, "most EU airports will not be able to access RRF financing", adding that the restrictions are "at odds with the objectives of the EU Green Deal and Commission's own agenda for the greening of airports".

State aid guidelines are anachronistic

That seems to be a reasonable complaint. State aid guidelines were implemented to prevent airports gaining advantages over others by way of the selective apportioning of such state aid, and especially where it meant that big airports could dominate smaller ones.

That was before the pandemic, and the entire ball game has changed. All airports are now in need of aid, some of them desperately.

ACI went on to say that further progress towards achieving net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 will require continued investment, including EUR25.9 billion for the decarbonisation of terminals at the top 50 European airports. ACI said there is an "unequivocal need for airports to be eligible under RRF funding" because "the Commission must come to terms with the material impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our industry... many airports will simply not be able to consider investments in the coming years. What we are facing is an unprecedented airport investment crunch".

ACI EUROPE also urged EU states to ensure that airport sustainability and digitalisation projects are considered under national recovery and resilience procedures. Europe as a whole has lost 7,500 air routes during the pandemic.

The public will demand that airport investment is on health and sustainability, not fancy lounges

There is, though, something of a dichotomy here. Many people (and especially those of a 'green tendency') will equate airport 'investment' with superfluity, especially where the private sector is involved.

Airport management must steel itself for a public backlash against the type of opulence that Ryanair's Michael O'Leary has often referred to as a 'Taj Mahal' syndrome.

In the future, when airports start to welcome back growing numbers of passengers, they may well find that those passengers are less concerned with shopping, eating, drinking, beauty treatments, valet car parking and all the rest of it, and are more concerned with simple, rapid, safe access and egress, coupled with clear indicators that their journey is not "harming the planet".

A simpler, almost 1950s-like, lifestyle has imposed itself on virtually everyone in the past year or so since 2020, and it will be difficult to shake off. And that is bad news for those airports that invested heavily in shiny new infrastructure before the pandemic - they are unlikely to see a prompt return on it.

Swedavia's CEO, Jonas Abrahamsson, says "Aviation is absolutely essential in order for our modern society to function, but the transport of the future must be fossil-free, so continued hard work is needed".

It is the "continued hard work" which stands out. This is no passing fad. It will become the norm now, and quickly, which is why the following links are provided.

Swedavia's complete Annual and Sustainability Report (in Swedish) can be downloaded at www.swedavia.se/om-swedavia/finansiell-information. The English version of the Annual and Sustainability Reports will be available on Swedavia's website in late Apr-2021.

For further information about Swedavia's climate change adaptation work:The change is already underway and We're developing the airports of the future

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