Airports, Ports, and Climate Change (part I)

Airports, Ports, and Climate Change (part 1)
December 2019

Last month, Denmark announced that Kangerlussuaq Airport — Greenland’s main airport — is set to end civilian flights within five years due to the melting of permafrost cracking its runway. Infrastructure investors take note – this is the first airport worldwide to close due to climate change, but unlikely to be the last. A new greenfield facility will have to be built to accommodate future flights.

A year earlier, Osaka’s Kansai International Airport was largely closed for 17 days, when waves and winds from Typhoon Jebi breached a seawall. In June 2017, American Airlines cancelled 40 flights out of Phoenix, Arizona, as extreme heat made it too difficult for smaller jets to takeoff from the airport.

Welcome to the future of airports.

Climate change is arriving, faster and worse than most projections estimated. For airport operators and investors, this will entail more of the type of consequences already being seen in Greenland, Japan, and Arizona. The current Infrastructure Ideas issue will outline some of these consequences, while the subsequent issue will examine the future of ports in a time of climate adaptation.

Emissions Mitigation. The world’s airlines are expected to fly over 4.5 billion passengers in 2019 (yes, almost a flight for every person on the planet), up by a billion since 2015. This high growth is driving very large capital investment plans for airports, as well as rising emissions. The aviation industry is estimated to be responsible for more than 850 million tons of CO2 emissions annually, about 3% of all global emissions. Emissions from jets are thought to have more harmful effects than many other sources of emissions, as they get released higher up in the atmosphere. Given air traffic projections, emissions from aviation are projected to triple by 2050. This has led in the past few years to increasing concerns, in the context of increasingly dire warnings from the scientific community about the pace and severity of climate change. Already in 2016 the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, agreed to cap carbon emissions from international flights, starting in 2021 – an agreement which may prove difficult to implement if passenger growth continues as projected. Some airlines are also trying to get on the front foot: United Airlines announced a goal to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2050. How this will be done, and whether it will be enough to offset the onset of major regulatory limits, remains to be seen. As start-up technology companies explore the launch of “air taxi” services, domestic flight emissions may also see accelerated growth. Industry players should expect that there is likely to be increased conflict between political emission reduction objectives on the one hand and unabated passenger growth on the other. Therefore investors in the sector may do well to factor the risk of political action either taxing flights and/or limiting flights, and therefore reducing the overall needs for capital investment in airport expansions. Arguments can also be seen already that controlling the expansion of airports themselves is an important tool to curbing airline emissions (see Curbed, Want to Get People to Fly Less? Stop Funding Airport Expansions).

Airports themselves emit a tiny fraction of the GHGs that airlines do – at least directly. Their own operations are far less likely to face political pressure of the type that airlines will. Nonetheless a climate neutral accreditation exists and has enrolled many facilities, whose efforts focus on meeting energy needs through renewables and improved efficiency, on the use of hybrid or electric vehicles, and on public/group transit facilitation for employees. Potential emission reductions of this type may be largest in airports located in lower-income countries, which often see a combination of less-modern/ less-efficient operational equipment and older less-fuel efficient aircraft. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, for example, has achieved major GHG reductions by purchasing power units for parked aircraft which run on electricity, rather than diesel as the older units had. This is good — yet the indirect emissions related to airports are significant, and may prove to be more of a political target in the future. Indirect emissions would be mainly two elements: how many flights airport capacity allows, and transport emissions from people getting to and parking at an airport. As noted above, activism is beginning to target the issue of airport capacity expansions as a means of curbing airline emissions. It is likely that in the near future, the efficiency of passengers reaching an airport starts attracting attention, with arguments for parking expansions to be replaced by public transit, for example. At one level further removed, one can also anticipate growing pressure for investment in passenger rail services, coupled with increased taxation of short-haul flights, to attempt to shift traffic from air to rail for short-distance travel (as most fuel is burned on take-off and landing, making short flights more carbon-intensive flights). The bigger climate change worry for airports, however, is likely to be adaptation.

Adaptation needs: water. Water has gone from a friend of airports to a foe. In many cities, airports were built near seacoasts to minimize disturbances to humans or avoid natural obstacles like mountains. Now that water is rising, and airports are some of the most vulnerable infrastructure to sea level rise. In the USA, 13 of the country’s 47 largest airports have at least one runway that is vulnerable to storm surge, including the giant facilities in New York, Miami and San Francisco. Globally fifteen of the 50 busiest airports sit less than 30 feet above sea level, while the OECD identified 64 airports as likely to be affected by the predicted rise in sea levels. Complete disappearance of facilities may be remote (for the extreme risk, see our previous Lessons from the Venice Floods), but higher water levels will exacerbate the effects of storms, making airport flooding far more common and damaging. And though damage will be more extensive and long-lasting for coastal airports, inland airports will not be exempt from water-related adaptation issues. More intense rain events, another predicted effect of climate change, will cause more frequent and damaging river flooding, as the US Midwest has been experiencing. Inland airports are also frequently sited near rivers, for the same reasons that their coastal counterparts are frequently sited along the shore, increasing their vulnerability to flooding.

The obvious approach to adaptation for airports is to try to keep the water out. San Francisco is Exhibit A for this approach, having announced plans for a $587 million seawall to protect its airport. When the project was first tabled, in 2012, it was designed for an 11-inch sea level rise, with an estimated cost of $50 million. Seven years later, with climate projections getting worse, the revised plan now calls for planning on a 36-inch rise and has increased the estimated cost by 1,000%. Across the bay, Oakland plans a $46 million project to fortify and raise by 2 feet the 4.5-mile dike which protects it. In Hong Kong, plans for the $18 billion third airport runway were revised to include a 21-foot high seawall. Norway, whose state-run airport operator Avinor has called almost half its airports “quite exposed” to potential sea level rise, has decided to build all future runways at least 23 feet above sea level (For more, see this month’s article in Wired, How Airports are Protecting Themselves Against Rising Seas). Moving the water that does arrive is also critical: airport drainage systems will need significant fortifying to move greater and faster-arriving amounts of water. At some stage, however, airports will face the same dilemma that coastal cities and seaside home-owners increasingly face (see previous column, Capital Punishment): keep investing in barriers to the sea, or move. When city leaders opt to move, as in the case of Jakarta, it will be difficult for its airport to remain viable.

Adaptation needs: Heat. After water, the next biggest issue for airports will be extreme heat. The curbing of takeoffs due to 120-degree heat in Phoenix garnered many headlines (see the New York Times, Too Hot to Fly? Climate Change May Take a Toll on Air Travel). Hotter air means thinner air, impacting the ability of planes with smaller engines to generate enough lift to get airborne. Extreme heat requires longer distances to take off and/or reducing aircraft weight (with fewer passengers or cargo). Airports in locations where high temperatures already occur frequently, and with short runways that limit planes’ ability pick up speed, will be especially affected. One of Air India’s general managers, Captain Rajeev Bajpai, notes that extreme heat is already an aviation problem in countries like Kuwait, where planes can be grounded on summer days because their electronics automatically shut down. Hotter temperatures may cause tarmac to melt, or as in the case of Kangerlussuaq, may cause the ground under the tarmac to melt. While the impact of these issues may not rise to that caused by rising seas, takeoff and weight restrictions, and more frequent tarmac repairs, all add up to substantial costs for airport operators – as well as disruptions to passenger and cargo transport. Higher cooling costs will be another obvious effect.

There will be other climate adaptation needs. ICAO notes that high wind, heavy precipitation and even lightning strike events that threaten facilities, and aircraft are growing more frequent. But dealing with water and heat will be the big two for airports.

Financing Implications. Adapting to climate change will require greater capital spending from airports, accompanied by greater uncertainty and low likelihood of associated revenue gains. The airport industry is already today a major infrastructure investor. According to Reuters, $260 billion in airport infrastructure projects are under construction worldwide. Those are big numbers, and climate adaptation needs will add more, as we can see from the costs of just the San Francisco and Hong Kong plans. The handful of 30-million passenger per year airports will most easily finance and absorb these capital costs. Issues are likely, however, to arise for the larger number of mid-size airports around the world. The problem they will face is that the capital costs for keeping water out are related more to geography than the volume of an airport’s operations, and mid-size airports may face similar adaptation-related capital costs to those of larger airports, but without the same revenue base over which to amortize them. It will be an expensive asymmetry for many airports. The second financial implication of adaptation, greater uncertainty, is also illustrated by the case of San Francisco – where in seven years the projected capital needed to hold off rising waters rose by a factor of ten as projected sea rise levels kept changing. “It’s going to be an evolving battle,” as says Patti Clark, a former airport manager who now teaches at Embry-Riddle College of Aeronautics. Capital expenditures needed for continued operations in 2050 may well look very different in 2030 than it does in 2020. These kind of investments also have the disadvantage they will not in themselves produce incremental revenues – they will just try to keep the ship afloat, so to speak.

Harvey Houston Airport flooding

Houston Airport after Hurricane Harvey


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