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Interview with Rachel Burbidge, EUROCONTROL

Rachel Burbidge, EUROCONTROL’s Environment and Climate Change Policy Officer

“It is essential to consider climate change forecasts when upgrading existing or developing new infrastructure.”

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Rachel Burbidge, EUROCONTROL

The aviation industry is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Since when are European aviation stakeholders really aware of the impacts of climate change and what actions have they been taking?

EUROCONTROL first identified the impacts of climate change, such as sea-level rise, higher temperatures and stronger storms, as a risk for the aviation sector in 2008 as part of our  Challenges of Growth work. [1] But Avinor, the Norwegian airport operator and air navigation service provider (ANSP) has been implementing adaptation measures since the early 2000s, even incuding the introduction of a requirement that all new runways are at least seven metres above sea-level. In the UK, the ten main airports and the ANSP developed climate adaptation plans as a result of national climate change legislation introduced in 2008, and in France risk assessment of French aiports was initiated as a result of the adoption of the French National Adaptation Plan in 2011. More recently, Brussels Airport has been introducing measures to tackle both heavy rainfall and drought, such as increasing sewer capacity, constructing green roofs and introducing a neighbourhood water-sharing system. So the industry is taking action, and I think there is definitely an increased awareness of the need to do so. But I also think as a sector we need to do more, and more quickly.

 

The majority of impacts will focus on airports. What kind of impacts will that be and how might airports adapt to them?

I think we have a good understanding of the main impacts which will affect airports, such as threats to infrastructure from rising sea-levels, inundation due to exceedance of draining capacity in heavy rainfall, damage to surfaces from extreme heat, or impacts on operations due to very strong storms. But impacts can vary greatly depending on factors such as geographical location and airport design, so all airports are advised to carry out their own risk assessment to identify the vulnerabilities that they may have. Then they can start to identify and implement adaptation and resilience measures to address them. For sea-level rise this may be constructing sea-defences, whereas to combat an increase in heavy precipitation  that may be increasing drainage capacity, or for airports that are expected to see an increase in extreme heat days that may be increasing terminal cooling capabilities. But again, the measures will vary according to the impacts an airport is at risk from.

 

Although weather events are getting more extreme, some airports will be affected more than others, depending on their geographical location and scale of operations. What are the forecasts for the European airports?

The European Environment Agency recently published an update on expected climate change impacts for Europe [2]. It tells us that droughts are expected to become more frequent in southern, central and western Europe although, conversely, all regions could also experience an increase in heavy rain, particularly in winter. Estimates for sea-level rise vary between 0.2 and 1.0 metre depending on the emissions scenario, although some recent studies have suggested up to 2.5 metres may be possible.

But as you say, specific impacts for an individual airport could vary considerably depending on an airport’s grographical location and design. So it is important for an airport, or any organisation looking to carry out a climate change risk assessment and implement an adaptation plan, to get good localised climate forecasts on which to base assessments and planning.

 

You have been leading EUROCONTROL’s work on climate change adaptation and resilience since 2009. What do you think about the evolution of the policies on aviation and climate change adaptation during the last decade?

I think we’re definitely seeing progress. Ten years ago the main environmental challenge for the aviation sector was mitigating its climate change impact rather than adapting. And indeed that still is, and should be, the case. We need to keep on increasing our efforts to reduce our climate change impact. But I think gradually there has been a growing recognition that we also need to take action to adapt. I think this has certainly been influenced by some of the horrendous extreme weather events which we’ve witnessed in recent years, and which have often impacted the sector, but also by an increase in support and awareness material from aviation sector organisations such as the Airports Council International (ACI), ICAO, and of course EUROCONTROL. Tackling climate change, both mitigation and adaptation, is something we have to do collectively as a sector. We’re much more effective, and will achieve more, the more we continue to work together.

 

What kind of support and measures does EUROCONTROL offer for sustainable growth of airports and of the aviation system?

One of the main things we’re working on is facilitating the introduction of Continuous Climb and Continuous Descent operations, known as CCO and CDO. This is an operational measure to reduce the noise and emissions impact of climbing and descending aircraft by avoiding level flight to the extent possible. We also facilitate the implementation of Collaborative Environmental Management, or CEM, which is a process for the operational stakeholders at an airport to work together to implement measures that reduce environmental impacts, such as CCO and CDO for example. We’ve been supporting the European Commission in the implementation of the EU ETS for aviation since its inception, and more recently we’ve been doing a lot of work to support the United Nation’s International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, on the development of the CORSIA offsetting scheme for international aviation.

 

Have European airports begun to address climate risks as part of ongoing operational and infrastructure improvements?

Good question! Yes, I believe some have, and this is definitely seen as one of the most efficient and cost-effective ways to adapt to climate change. In fact, I would say it’s essential to consider climate change forecasts when upgrading existing or developing new infrastructure. A good example is the new Istanbul Grand Airport where intergrating climate change resilience was an intergral part of the new airport development. But it can also make sense to implement a focused climate risk assessment and  implementation plan, or to integrate climate risk into the airport’s existing risk management plan. The important thing is to take action. We carried out a survey of European aviation stakeholders on climate change risk and adaptation and nearly a quarter of respondents said that they are already experiencing some impacts of climate change, with the majority of the other respondents expecting to experience it by 2030. The message is clear, we need to start to prepare today for the impacts that are on the horizon.

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[1] “Challenges of Growth” is a series of studies which EUROCONTROL publishes approximately every five years with the objective of providing aviation sector decision makers with the best achievable information.

[2] “Climate Change Impacts in Europe” European Environment Agency (2020) https://experience.arcgis.com/stemapp/5f6596de6c4445a58aec956532b9813d

 

Aviation against climate change

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