Christchurch Airport – Carbon Zero Airport

Last November Christchurch Airport, the second largest airport in New Zealand, became the first airport in the world to reach the highest level of airport carbon reduction best practice.

Christchurch Airport (CIAL) is likely to stay at the forefront of the global effort to achieve zero carbon emissions by or before 2050. To date, the airport has achieved an 85% reduction in all direct emissions from its activities since its 2015 baseline year. Further plans are in hand to impact the next stage – purchased electricity – and to influence emission reductions in its supply chain.

“The airport boasts many unique features – it is located in the middle of the South Island, 10 minutes from Christchurch City Centre by car or 15 minutes by bicycle. The South Island is known for its beautiful, sometimes quite rugged natural environment, which, until the recent pandemic, drew millions of global tourists and leisure travellers. As the gateway to Antarctica, the airport is an important travel hub for US, Italian, Australian and NZ Antarctic crews and scientists. The airport also hosted NASA’s SOFIA aircraft each winter until the pandemic.

“I believe we have a unique approach to operating an airport – our base criterion is whether what we are doing is good for people, the planet and prosperity. We want to create genuine and enduring change that will have a lasting positive impact for environmental and intergenerational well-being,” says Claire Waghorn, Sustainability Transition Leader.

“This recognition of being able to create multiple types of value, as opposed to being purely profit-driven, is unique, which is not to say the airport isn’t also profitable. Despite Covid-19, Christchurch Airport was able to retain all its staff, as well as generate a $38 million profit for its shareholders in FY21.”

Sailing though the hard times

Despite the idyllic setting, the airport’s development over the years has not been without its challenges. In February 2011, Christchurch had a 6.2 magnitude earthquake which devastated 70% of the city.

“This has been a long recovery for the city, reshaping Christchurch Airport as a company, including our finances, and diversifying the airport’s portfolio,” says Ms Waghorn, adding this hard work in a way helped to prepare the airport company for the pandemic, which – in contrast to many airports around the world – has not scarred Christchurch Airport too deeply.

“The diversification which limited our dependency on leisure tourists served us well through the pandemic, in which New Zealand’s closed border elimination strategy has meant we’ve had incredible freedom comparative to much of the world. We had no access to the international leisure tourist market, but our domestic travel skyrocketed.”

The past 18 months have also been a good opportunity to look inwards for improvement opportunities, in particular with regard to reduced emissions. “We have actually done some of our best work given the circumstances and have started to look at plans that could be implemented without requiring huge capital costs. Over those months, we started to introduce sustainable procurement guidelines and green building standards,” says Claire Waghorn.

The Maori concept

With a background in politics, where climate change has not necessarily been a priority topic, she admits working for Christchurch International has been a rewarding experience. “I’ve moved to a company that is really ambitious on the implementation side – eager to take responsibility for climate impact, and to go beyond that, to really demonstrate leadership in the transition towards a zero-emissions future.”

She points out these plans have huge support from all employees across the company up to board level.  “It is a real culture. The company works really hard to retain talent, and invests well in developing staff –making sure we are collectively feeding into the vision and values so what we do is reflective of the whole of the company mission.”

“Our approach to sustainability is centred on the Maori concept of kaitiakitanga (responsibility, care and guardianship of the land).  We learn so much from an indigenous matauranga Maori approach – firstly, not seeing our environment as being separate from us, a category distinct from people or prosperity, but rather we are part of a whole interconnected, interdependent environmental system. We are lucky to have this wonderful environment around us and it is our duty to protect it for future generations.”

Race towards zero

In 2006, Christchurch Airport was the first in the world to measure and independently audit its carbon footprint. The airport then developed a Green Transition Plan, including all the projects that were needed to get to net zero.

“In November 2020, we became the first airport in the world to be recognised for reaching the highest standard of carbon reduction best practice, known as Airport Carbon Accreditation Level 4. We are committed to reducing our own direct emissions ahead of science-based targets, in order to keep the increase in global temperatures within 1.5 degrees,” says Claire Waghorn.

While the science-based targets were set to reduce the Scope 1 emissions by 85% by 2035, the airport achieved that in 2021. This was the result of multiple emission-reduction projects undertaken over several years, but primarily impacted by the introduction of the ground source heat pump system.

This meant the airport could heat and cool its terminal using a heat exchange system, utilising the ambient temperature of the aquifer beneath us. “This is an amazingly innovative technology, that has saved us 1000 t CO2 per annum, and reduced our operating and maintenance costs by $500,000 per year. It’s a great example of doing the right thing environmentally also being great commercially.”

She points out that the airport is now working on a similar large scale reduction in its Scope 2 emissions – purchased electricity from the national grid. This will be New Zealand’s largest solar farm , onsite at Christchurch International Airport. Ultimately, the goal is to invest in measures to help suppliers, customers and the wider economy to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gases.

“With our ‘open source sustainability’, we are supporting the decarbonisation of aviation overall. We share everything we have learned with airport peers and interested businesses, providing coaching and mentoring, openly sharing our plans globally without corporate secrecy. Together, we can all make a difference.”

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