Most of DFW International Airport’s eco-friendly efforts take place in accounting offices or back hallways far from the view of the air hub’s millions of passengers.
But on bright days, travelers can peek at some of the new “dynamic glass” windows in terminals A and E and slowly watch them change from clear to a dark shade of blue-gray to block out the warm Texas sun.
The airport has spent millions of dollars, and saved millions, during the last decade to make it the world’s most eco-friendly. Smart trash cans and paper towel dispensers alert employees when supplies are low. Shuttles between terminals now mostly use renewable fuels with a few all-electric versions on the way next year.
In 2016, DFW was among the first major facilities in the U.S. to say it was going carbon neutral, meaning it would reduce its carbon emissions and pay for carbon offsets on the open market. The carbon-neutral tag has cost the airport about $30,000 a year to negate 30,000 to 40,000 tons of carbon emissions.
Airport leaders now plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” by 2030, two decades ahead of Paris Climate Agreement goals.
DFW cut its carbon emissions by more than 75% between 2010 and 2016, mostly by purchasing renewable Texas solar and wind power from utility providers and changing lighting and heating systems over to more energy-efficient technologies.
As one of the largest facilities in North Texas, the airport has a responsibility to be an environmental leader, not only to help the environment but to save money, said CEO Sean Donohue.
But reducing the negative environmental impact of the travel industry will take a lot more than just airports, he said.
“We measure carbon neutrality by what we control,” Donohue said. “If we included the aircraft, there is no way we could be considered carbon neutral.”
The air travel industry is responsible for about 3% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Transportation, including trucking and freight ships, are the world’s biggest polluters ahead of factories and power generation.
DFW Airport itself created about 38,000 tons of carbon emissions in 2019, according to the airport’s audits.
A single passenger’s flight from DFW to New York is responsible for 1,600 pounds of carbon emissions, mostly through airplane fuel burn, according to the MyClimate Foundation in Switzerland’s carbon footprint calculator. Multiply that by 75 million passengers a year, and it’s easy to see how a single airport’s efforts are swallowed by the travel it facilitates.
For reference, an oak tree captures about 1 ton of carbon over a 40-year life.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended air travel, pollution was set to be one of the industry’s major conversations. It’s become a major issue as airlines chart a path out of the pandemic and hope to rebuild a travel industry that’s much more efficient to the environment and investors.
In early December, Chicago-based United Airlines said it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 100% by 2050.
Airlines, including Fort Worth-based American, have started offering “carbon offset” credits that customers can buy to try to displace the gas emissions used during a flight. Offsets for a flight from DFW Airport to New York’s JFK would cost about $8, money that would be used to try to negate about 1 ton of carbon in the atmosphere through planting trees or funding projects to reduce emissions in developing countries.
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker has said the best way for the airline industry to reduce its carbon emissions and environmental impact is through cutting out fossil fuels and buying more fuel-efficient planes.
“How we really get our carbon footprint minimized is through sustainable fuels and working over time to make that happen,” Parker said at a Goldman Sachs presentation in November. “But right now, there’s just not nearly enough capacity for sustainable fuels to fund any sort of real airline capacity. So the best thing we can do is have the youngest fleet.”
That’s one of the reasons airlines were so upset when Boeing’s 737 Max was grounded in March 2019 and remained so until late December. The planes are 15% to 25% more fuel-efficient than previous models, a feature that cuts down on emissions and saves airlines money as they try to weather the largest financial downturn in aviation history.
Airlines are making moves to be more environmentally friendly, even though low fuel prices have taken the financial pressure off carriers to be more efficient. American and others have lowered ticket prices to stimulate demand.
“We know that aviation is of concern and the path to net-zero for aviation as a whole is difficult between now and 2050,” said Melinda Pagliarello, director of environmental affairs at Airports Council International-North America. “So much of that is about in-flight and we are working to enable airlines to do something about sustainable aviation fuel.”
At DFW, Donohue said his staff is moving ahead with efforts even if it will take airlines time to catch up. It’s one of only two airports in the world to achieve the newly created top level for sustainability from the Airport Council International Airport Carbon Accreditation program, meaning DFW has moved beyond carbon neutral and toward eliminating all of its emissions.
Still, DFW’s last 40,000 tons a year of carbon will be the hardest to eliminate. The airport will take delivery of its first all-electric shuttle buses in June. There are plans to invest in the airport’s central utility plant to make it more energy-efficient and move away from natural gas to wind power produced elsewhere in Texas.
Airports have to be careful with how they spend money. Any dollar that goes into the airport, whether from fees on tickets, food sales or parking, has to legally be invested back into the airport and the passenger experience, according to federal laws.
The $30,000 that DFW pays for carbon offset credits has been a small price to pay, Donohue said. The airport has cut its power and fuel costs by more than $21 million a year by focusing on energy efficiency.
“Our plan is to transition to electric heating for the terminals,” said Robert Horton, who leads DFW’s environmental affairs and sustainability office. “We plan on only using a small amount of gas for the real peaks.”
The airport will have to reduce its garbage output, too, and Donohue said there are plans for waste sorting to pull out recyclable products. It’s also talking to the airport’s restaurant and catering kitchens about turning food waste into other products.
Dallas Love Field, owned by the city of Dallas, was given a “Level 2\u2033 carbon accreditation by Airports Council International in 2018, meaning it has cut its carbon emissions since 2015. Since then, Love Field has focused on reducing waste and adding water bottle refilling stations to cut down on the use of plastic bottles by customers, said spokesman Chris Perry. Love Field did a waste audit in 2019 to figure out ways to cut down on garbage.
DFW’s upcoming $3 billion terminal F project also could give the airport a lift. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has put the project on hold, Donohue said the airport and partner American Airlines will have the ability to design the new terminal from the ground up with efficient technologies.
“When terminal F comes back on the table, there will be even more effective ways to build,” Donohue said.
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