It’s less than 18 months ago that Greta Thunberg sat on her own outside the Swedish parliament to draw attention to the critical state of our climate. It’s already an iconic image: a brave and determined schoolgirl, on a mission to save the world. No one – not even Greta herself, I’d imagine – could have predicted she’d inspire a global movement.
But look where we are now. I’ve been working in sustainability for more than two decades and the pace of change over the last year has been momentous. As well as the school strikes movement inspired by Greta, we’ve seen Extinction Rebellion protests around the world.
That public uprising has both pressured Governments and also created the political space for action – with the UK one of the first countries to legislate a 2050 net-zero target. The health of our planet is now a central consideration for individuals, governments, and businesses.
The 2020s promises to be a decade that continues that huge pace of change. Changing attitudes will drive invention and innovation, which in turn will enable us all to live greener, healthier lives. And Heathrow has a big role to play in that, of course.
However, the end of the year is a time to reflect. So rather than look to the future, I thought I’d take a moment to look back at 2019 through the lens of sustainability to consider how far we’ve come as a society, and review what we have done as a business to improve our environmental impact.
2019 was the year that…
2019 ushered in a new age of activism on climate change. Public concern over the environment has never been higher – and it’s probably never been such a prominent issue in a UK General Election as it was in this one. In September, around 350,000 people in the UK left their schools and offices to join the global climate strike. And earlier this month, tens of thousands of people marched again ahead of the UN climate summit in Madrid.
Then, of course, there’s Extinction Rebellion. While I might not agree with all of their tactics, there’s no doubt that they have successfully influenced our political leaders: In May, MPs approved a motion to declare an environment and climate emergency, one of the key demands of the Rebellion.
“Considering I work in aviation, it may come as a surprise to some that I met with Extinction Rebellion earlier this year.”
While we continued to disagree on whether growth in aviation could be compatible with tackling climate change, it was a constructive meeting because we share common ground when it comes to wanting to see the climate crisis averted. And Heathrow is committed to continuing to engage constructively on the issue. My door has been - and will continue to be - open.
In June, the UK became the first major economy to write targets into law, to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 – a landmark move that put clean growth at the heart of the Industrial Strategy.
That means Heathrow’s growth must also be clean and green. While flying has huge benefits to people and economies, Heathrow can’t, and won’t, grow at any cost. As a leading voice in the aviation industry, we are committed to reaching net zero targets, but – as we head into the new year with a
“To support our own investments and innovations, we are committed to working alongside others in the industry to ensure the UK leads the way in sustainable flight.”
Crucially, we’ve called on the Government to explore how Air Passenger Duty (APD) can be used to incentivise the industry to scale-up the production and use of sustainable fuels. The UK can take a lead in responsible growth, but support from our lawmakers is needed.
To accelerate the arrival of sustainable air travel, Heathrow launched the Centre of Excellence. Finding answers to the huge environmental challenges we face is hard. It requires creative thinking, new approaches, and collaboration between the best in the industry.
So, our Centre of Excellence seeks to achieve just that. We’ve built a hub of learning and exploration that collaborates with top academics, scientists and entrepreneurs. The winner of our annual innovation prize this year was a team of UCL academics testing a new technology to convert into new materials from waste plastics at the airport that can’t currently be recycled. One of the outputs might even be aviation fuel! It’s this kind of thinking, we believe, that will hasten the arrival of sustainable travel. We’re doing all we can to encourage it.
The challenge we face can’t be tackled alone. And this year, on the global stage, aviation leaders committed to finding practical solutions together.
I was proud to be at the World Economic Forum in New York, where Heathrow became a part of the Clean Skies of Tomorrow Coalition - a collaboration pushing for better, more ambitious, global targets and real cooperation. I shared some thoughts on the outcomes of the trip in a previous blog: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/proud-taking-leading-role-clean-skies-tomorrow-coalition-gorman/.
Heathrow was also represented at this year’s UN Climate Action Summit.
“Our CEO, John Holland-Kaye, was one of a handful of leaders invited to speak on behalf of our industry and discuss the need for an international response to decarbonisation.”
We’re clear this is a challenge we need to tackle together.
A green future can feel like a long way away. But while most of my day is focused on bigger-picture decarbonisation, there is no change too small. So many other activities have gone on across Britain’s busiest airport to lessen the environmental impact of what we do and make positive change where we can. We shouldn’t overlook even the smallest step forward.
By way of an example, we worked with Sustain (the Alliance for Better Food and Farming), the Sustainable Restaurant Association, and our airport partners to become the world’s first Sustainable Fish Airport. With 4 million seafood meals sold across our four terminals each year, we took a responsible step forward and engaged some of the biggest food brands in doing so. We’re also investing over £50 million in cutting edge security equipment which will eventually remove the need for plastic LAG (liquids, aerosols & gels) bags at our security gates.
Small changes implemented now are shaping our future.
I believe flying is fundamentally a force for good in the world. It brings people together and delivers huge economic benefits globally – especially to Britain as a major exporter and tourist destination.
But if we want to realise our ambition of sustainable flight, then we have to continue to take a strong lead as we step into the next decade.
I want to thank my team for all their hard work this year. We’ve made progress that we can be proud of. But there’s so much more to do and we should be excited about the next ten years.