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Viewpoint: Sustainable Design of Airports

Sustainable Design of Airports

It has been a little over one hundred years since the Wright brothers took to the air, and our almost-miraculous ability to travel by plane has made flight an integral part of the world economy. As a result, from time to time Aviation is the subject of headlines stating the “great but invisible harm” it causes to the environment. Right? Not really. According to the EPA, in the United States aircraft of all kinds are estimated to emit between 2.4% and 3.4% of total greenhouse gas emissions, and the IPCC estimates that Aviation worldwide is responsible for around 3.5% of anthropogenic climate change.


The high visibility of airport terminals is the probable cause of any misconceptions about the environmental impact of the Aviation Industry. Few buildings rival the profile of an airport terminal today and it is true to say that in the 21st century the airport has become the iconic gateway that creates the first and last impression of most cities.

While the environmental impact of Aviation is relatively small, it is significant, and until recently, the industry has been somewhat tardy in responding to environmental concerns. That is changing, as the recent certification of Winnipeg and Edmonton as the first two LEED® airport terminals in Canada illustrates. Whatever the improvement in environmental performance that a single airport building might achieve, these two projects are more symbolic than substantive of the actions that the Aviation industry needs to take to address climate change and GHG reduction.

The industry is responding in many ways, and the following key themes illustrate the extent of the response:
Aircraft Design.
It is beyond the scope of this brief article to get into any detail on this topic. Suffice it to note that manufacturers are designing lighter and more efficient aircraft and are implementing modifications to existing ones, such as adding “winglets” to wing-tips that reduce fuel consumption. Research is underway into electric and hybrid forms of aircraft propulsion, and as a result, future aircraft may not only look different, but may significantly reduce their environmental impact.

Intermodal Connections. Airports are making substantial investments in intermodal connections and public transit. Since its completion for the 2010 Olympics, the Vancouver “SkyTrain” has been remarkably successful, and is operating well in excess of its initial projections, while the “UP Express” recently commenced its rail connection between Toronto’s Downtown and Pearson International Airport. On a far more modest scale, both Victoria and Vancouver have invested in bicycle routes and bicycle storage facilities. While the idea of passengers cycling to an airport may raise a smile, let’s not forget that there are many thousands of people employed directly or indirectly at airports, some of whom cycle to work.