Airports Can Play a Key Role in Reducing Carbon Emissions, Too

Lauren Seydewitz, LEED AP BD+C

Lauren Seydewitz, LEED AP BD+C

Jinelle Crosser, ENV SP, LEED AP BD+C

Jinelle Crosser, ENV SP, LEED AP BD+C

A short time ago, Gresham Smith announced that the firm had successfully assisted Dallas Love Field (DAL) Airport in their goal to achieve Level 3 Carbon accreditation from Airports Council International, which required the examination of all carbon emissions from the airport itself, as well as third-party stakeholders. While this accreditation demonstrates a strong commitment to environmentally friendly and sustainable design and operations, it is also proof that DAL can reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption, despite elevated use of the facility because of increased passenger travel.

At first glance, airports can seem like a major producer of carbon emissions. Between the airplanes themselves, the terminal building, luggage and supply trucks, ground transportation and more, it’s easy to assume that all these necessary components that emit carbon are here to stay, and because of their vitality to airport operations, there isn’t much that can be done. Luckily, that is not the case.

For several years, Gresham Smith has been working alongside DAL to develop a plan that will help them achieve carbon neutrality. We first engaged with DAL on carbon emissions in 2017, and have revisited and updated their carbon management plan every year. DAL successfully achieved Level 1 in 2017, Level 2 in 2018 and Level 2 renewal in 2019. The airport has reduced its carbon emissions by 61% since 2015, and is set to continue this path for years to come.

But, what exactly does a plan to reduce carbon emissions at an airport look like?


The Significance of Level 3

Run by the Airports Council International, the Airport Carbon Accreditation Program is an independent and verified approach to reducing carbon emissions. In Level 1, the airport is tasked with identifying the carbon footprint of the airport itself and compiling a report of the total emissions. In Level 2, the airport must show that it has developed effective carbon management procedures, and is making progress on reducing carbon emissions.

Level 3 goes one step further, requiring that carbon emissions of all third-party stakeholders are accounted for. This includes shuttles, ground transportation, fuel companies, food vendors, the food, beverage and retail shops inside the airport, aviation companies that operate through hangar spaces, fixed base operators and more. Oftentimes, these third-party stakeholders are not actively tracking their carbon emissions, and sometimes, they may not even know where to start.

When helping the airport achieve Level 3, we had to develop partnerships with these stakeholders. This meant more than just email exchanges – we had to truly show them how reducing carbon emissions was a shared goal for both our firm and the airport, and the value of engaging with us. This also meant streamlining the data collection process, because we didn’t want them to feel overburdened.


Reaching this Milestone

DAL’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions and promoting sustainability began way back in 2011, when Dallas Mayor Michael Rawlings gave the airport the directive to start the process to become carbon neutral. Despite the economic rollercoaster of the last 10 years, this has remained a top priority for the airport, and there are a couple reasons why.

First, the City of Dallas has a robust environmental management system (EMS), and DAL’s goals for carbon neutrality work hand-in-hand with the EMS initiative. This has numerous benefits, as the EMS is very front of mind for the city, with lots of accountability and oversight. City leaders frequently keep their eyes on the progress being made to reduce carbon emissions at DAL, helping to bolster our work to achieve Level 3 accreditation. In 2020, the Dallas City Council approved the city’s Comprehensive Environmental and Climate Action Plan (CECAP), which mandated that municipal operations take steps to reduce their carbon footprint. This directive included DAL, which means that the airports commitment to reducing carbon emissions is here to stay.

Second, the initial carbon emissions inventory from DAL showed great promise. This helped convince both airport and city leaders that emissions reduction was a real possibility and not a far-off dream. Since 2015, DAL has made significant strides in reducing emissions through implementing numerous energy conservation measures, designing new buildings to sustainability standards (LEED and Parksmart), establishing electric vehicle infrastructure and replacing vehicles and equipment with efficient versions, among many others. The City of Dallas also negotiated a contract to purchase Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) each year that attribute wind power to cover all electricity, thereby creating a green, renewable electricity source.

Finally, since 2010, a great deal of federal money tied to sustainability, including from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), has been made available, which has forced the aviation industry overall to jump into the conversation. Utilizing the federal money also proved to be fiscally responsible for DAL, since the airport is tied to the City of Dallas and the funding required a connection to a local municipality.


“Gresham Smith was instrumental in guiding this project to completion, with an eye on the future to make certain Dallas Love Field Airport is leading the way in green building design,” said Sana Drissi, Environmental Operations Manager for the City of Dallas. “As a city, we have recognized the important role every building has in promoting a sustainable, healthy environment that is supportive of our residents. The firm was an excellent partner in understanding our vision, and we look forward to continuing our work with them.”


Going Up from Here

Even though we’ve achieved Level 3, we’re not stopping there. DAL has made a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality, and we intend to be there every step of the way. This will include reducing carbon emissions as much as feasible and procuring offsets for residual emissions that cannot be removed. To get there, we worked with DAL to identify recommendations in the areas of Energy, Vehicles and Equipment and Materials Management.

Energy: Energy use is DAL’s largest source of carbon emissions. While the City of Dallas procures RECs to account for electricity consumption, this is an ongoing cost that is subject to change. DAL is evaluating the feasibility of producing more renewable energy on-site, so that it is less susceptible to change, as well as reducing overall energy demand. In tandem with this project, our Building Engineering team conducted an energy audit of DAL facilities to evaluate the efficiency of existing systems and provide recommendations for energy conservation measures they can implement, including converting lighting to LEDs, adding sensors/controls for de-energizing equipment when not in use and optimizing the Central Utility Plant.

Vehicles and Equipment: The second largest source of carbon emissions is from vehicles and equipment. DAL conducted an alternative-fueled vehicle study that included recommendations for right-sizing the fleet and procuring electric or hybrid vehicles in the future. Exploring low-carbon and alternative fuels, as well as decreasing vehicle and equipment run time, can contribute to emissions reductions and improved air quality.

Material Management: We can’t forget that the trash and other materials that must be sent to the landfill contribute to methane generation and require transportation services to get there, adding to their carbon emissions output. To use fewer overall emissions, DAL is examining alternative materials management practices that reduce waste generation at the source or reuse and recycle waste, diverting them from being carried to the landfill.

The sustainability of DAL is crucial to the longevity of the city and surrounding region. Gresham Smith will continue to engage, advise, and share resources with the airport to help them achieve their goal of carbon neutrality. It may seem counterintuitive, but airports can play a key role in reducing carbon emissions, too.