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Decoding Net Zero: A Primer on Decarbonization Terminology

With the vision of a more sustainable future in mind, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Airports Council International North America (ACI-NA) are aligned in their commitment to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. aviation sector by 2050. This shared objective underscores the urgent need for airports nationwide to align their operations with broader sustainability goals, paving the way for a cleaner, greener trajectory.

As airports strive to minimize their environmental footprint, a plethora of terms such as carbon neutral, net zero, zero carbon, and even carbon negative have emerged, each holding distinct implications for sustainability efforts, yet often getting lost in the weight of jargon. AirportNetZero, a collaborative endeavor brought to you by the teams at C&S and Steer, is prepared to help your airport demystify these concepts and determine which approach is most appropriate for your decarbonization efforts. 

Decarbonization Terminology graphic
Decarbonization Dictionary
TerminologyDefinitionWho This Approach is Best For
Carbon NeutralCarbon Neutrality is achieved by reducing scope 1 and scope 2 carbon emissions and offsetting the remaining emissions through the purchase of certified emission reduction units or carbon offset credits. This means the airport has balanced its carbon emissions by removing or offsetting an equivalent amount.This approach is beneficial for airports in the early stages of their decarbonization journey or facing constraints in implementing on-site emission reduction measures. By embracing carbon neutrality, airports can kickstart their sustainability efforts and with the partnership of carbon offset providers.
Net ZeroNet Zero Carbon is achieved when an airport implements all feasible on-site emission reduction activities and utilizes carbon removal technologies to offset whatever cannot be reduced on-site due to technological or cost limitations. This approach also requires the airport to be on an emissions reduction pathway that is consistent with the trajectory to limit global warming to 1.5°C.This strategy is advantageous for airports seeking to align with global sustainability trends, demonstrate leadership in environmental stewardship, and contribute to the collective effort to combat climate change. It is a more comprehensive commitment than carbon neutrality because of its requirement to maximize on-site reductions.
Zero CarbonZero Carbon is achieved when no carbon emissions are generated, meaning that facilities, vehicles, and equipment are powered by renewable sources of electricity or zero-emissions technology such as hydrogen fuel cells.Zero Carbon and Carbon Negative are challenging goals reserved for the most sustainability-minded airports. These strategies position airports as undisputed leaders in environmental innovation, aligning with global sustainability trends and significantly contributing to the fight against climate change.
Carbon NegativeAn airport achieves a carbon negative status when it removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it generates, resulting in an overall negative carbon balance.

So, with all these options available, why so much focus on Net Zero?

Net Zero strikes the right balance between practicality and a meaningful target that will make a difference. At one end of the spectrum, carbon neutrality is often critiqued as “buying” progress due to its reliance on carbon offsets (which may have varying degrees of quality/credibility). At the other end of the spectrum, zero carbon and carbon negative require a degree of capital investment that is likely unfeasible for most airports to achieve. Net Zero falls right in the middle, providing airports with an opportunity to align their strategies with scientifically proven global pathways without committing to unrealistic timelines for converting all operations to zero emissions technology.

Key Benefits of Pursuing Net Zero: 

  1. Flexibility in Timing (But Don’t Delay!): Following a 1.5°C requires near-term and consistent reductions in emissions. However, it doesn’t require the immediate conversion of all facilities, vehicles, and equipment to zero emissions technologies. Airports can maintain a net zero pathway by maximizing the most technologically feasibly reductions first while continuing to investigate the more challenging, longer term reduction opportunities.
  2. Increased Financial Competitiveness. Because of the federal government’s focus on decarbonizing aviation, many federal grants now focus on funding projects that directly or indirectly reduce emissions at airports. By having a net zero goal in place and the planning complete for how to achieve that goal, an airport will be set up for success in these highly competitive grant programs. Additionally, with more and more investors expecting airports to be addressing climate risk, mitigating emissions, and managing energy costs, having a well established net zero program in place may bolster an airport’s creditworthiness as it pursues financing for major capital projects.
  3. Leaning on Partners to Help. Net zero does not require zero emissions, and the use of carbon removals is an acceptable method to achieve your goal (hence the “net” in net zero). Working with credible business partners to remove carbon from the atmosphere (whether on- or off-site) provides an airport with a more realistic pathway, as opposed to having to full decarbonize all operations.
  4. Alignment with the Industry. With the airport industry and governments aligned in their goal for a net zero aviation sector by 2050, committing to a net zero pathway demonstrates an airport’s awareness of broader industry trends. Additionally, the commitment will bring an airport in line with what travelers, investors, and business partners are increasingly expecting from the airports with which they engage.

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