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Sustainability Rating Systems: Breathing New Life into Airport Projects

With the most recent call for climate action, a long-awaited spotlight on racial justice, continued uncertainties around the pandemic, and a burgeoning awareness that environmental and social risks have real financial impacts, sustainability has officially shifted from a nice-to-have to a business imperative. Making this shift with aging infrastructure presents a unique challenge for airports, many of whom still grapple with an unsteady balance sheet in the wake of COVID-19. With the promise of infrastructure funds out of Washington, we must resist the tempting call of the status quo as we implement vital projects. If we fall victim to “this is how we’ve always done it,” we’ll miss our best chance to meet ambitious climate targets, advance human and social capital, and address an expanding pool of interested stakeholders’ priorities. Sustainability rating systems may offer a lifeline.

On August 11th, the Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA) Sustainability Working Group convened representatives of four sustainability rating systems (see call-out box) to discuss their application to airport projects. Below are a few takeaways:

Potential for Financial Returns – These rating systems may yield a range of financial returns, if applied correctly (User Tip: Early, often, and with others, i.e., don’t wait until the end of the project to consider a sustainability rating system, and engage stakeholders from the start and throughout the project). Possible financial benefits include but are not limited to:

  • Construction cost savings from reduced fuel and energy consumption, water conservation and reuse, and fewer material needs.

  • Operational savings via better building and systems performance.

  • Greater productivity, attendance, and retention of employees. For example, Cundall One Carter Lane in London reported a 27% reduction in employee turnover compared to the previous year after pursuing WELL, totaling over $150,000 in savings. At Arup Boston, 43% of staff said they feel healthier in the office compared to not in the office, compared to 2% in their previous office building.

  • Differentiating projects for grants that emphasize resilience and sustainability. For example, several of the DOT’s recent funding opportunities included climate resilience and social equity in the ranking criteria, and the upcoming infrastructure funding is trending this way. The rating systems may also help airports secure advantageous bond ratings, potentially reducing interest rates or drawing in investments.

Better Project Management While the award at the end of a project often takes center stage, ISI’s Anthony Kane notes:

“We are trying to change the approach – it is really about the process and good project management. Making sustainability an achievement and commitment from the beginning ensures this is a long-term goal from the start and embeds sustainability for the future.”

Integrating sustainability on day 1 can even expedite the design process since project teams are encouraged to ask the important questions early, thus limiting missteps or rework down the line.

Alignment with UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) and Other Commitments These rating systems should not be viewed as additional burdens; instead, they can help contribute to existing goals and commitments including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). For example:

  • SDG 3, "Good Health and Well-being," aims to ensure healthy lives for people of all ages. Green building can directly support the SDG 3 targets. LEED pushes project teams and building owners to address the relationship between the indoor environment and human health in a number of ways, protecting the health and comfort of building occupants through strategies including ventilation, access to daylight and views, and thermal comfort.

  • SDG 13 calls for governments, nonprofits, private sector actors, and the public to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Reversing the contribution of buildings and infrastructure to global climate change is a core goal of the rating systems. One of the five Envision credit categories is Climate and Resilience, and 35 of the 100 total points in LEED version 4 reward climate change mitigation strategies.

  • Twelve of the 17 SDGs involve infrastructure and four are exclusively about infrastructure. Of the 169 SDG targets, 34 are directly addressed in Envision and 33 have indirect alignment.

  • The WELL rating system aligns with nearly all of the SDGs as shown in their crosswalk here.

User Tip: Mapping how your projects contribute to the UN SDGs can help meet the growing requests for Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) information.

For those airports participating in ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA) Program, applying these rating systems on projects may help reduce operational carbon emissions and thus contribute to your goals. In addition, the new Level 4 of ACA requires the calculation of construction-related emissions, a focus of many sustainability rating systems. User Tip: If you have specific goals and targets for your airport, use these to prioritize credits within the rating systems when discussing requirements with design teams so they understand your priorities.

Promoting Innovation – Each of the rating systems has evolved with the times, honing the criteria and issuing new iterations over the years. For example, LEED’s recently released version 4.1 reflects many advancements compared to the original 1990s version. However, the administrators still recognize the value of innovation and provide credit for innovative or exemplary strategies. In many cases, this can include working with regulators to question assumptions that limit sustainability potential.

Moving forward, airports can leverage the many resources available with these rating systems including free guidance and tools (such as Parksmart’s), third-party certification/verification, and individual coaches for projects going through certification. The aviation sector will also benefit from tailored guidance. For example, WELL recently issued airport-specific guidance, and USGBC plans to incorporate lessons learned from our industry into future guidance that will accompany LEED version 4.1.

Whether we call them lofty aspirations or urgent imperatives, our path to decarbonize the aviation sector and advance social equity will not be an easy one. While we attempt to manage existing assets at airports, let’s not miss out on the opportunities provided by new development or major improvements. Embedding sustainability and resilience into design and construction will yield the greatest return on our investments and offer stakeholders tangible outcomes.

Thanks to those of you who joined the webinar and a huge thanks to our excellent panelists!


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