Amid dreadful year for air travel, DFW Airport finds unexpected reason to celebrate

Article by: Haley Samsel

For Texans working in the aviation industry, there has been little to cheer about over the past 10 months. The COVID-19 pandemic has been ruthless in its impact on airlines and their employees, thousands of whom have been laid off amid budget cuts and flight cancellations.

While business has been dismal, top officials at DFW Airport say the opposite is true when it comes to the airport’s environmental goals. And it has nothing to do with fewer planes taking off in 2020, since DFW only counts its own facilities and fleets toward sustainability targets, said Chad Makovsky, executive vice president of operations.

“It’s really never been more relevant and obvious now with the pandemic to realize that we are part of a broader global community, and we need to do our part to deal with the real effects of carbon emissions,” Makovsky said. “We’re not only doing this because it’s the right thing to do, but we’re doing it because it’s good for business, and it’s good for our business partners.”

DFW already holds the distinction as the largest carbon neutral airport in the world, and San Diego is the only other airport in the United States to pull off the same feat. The airport has already significantly reduced carbon emissions by converting to wind power, saving DFW more than $20 million each year in electricity costs, Makovsky said.

Now, the airport is “doubling down” with a new plan to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030, 20 years before the Paris climate agreement asks countries to achieve the same target, said Robert Horton, DFW’s head of environmental affairs.

“By proving the connection between efficiency and environmental benefits, it really allows us to show that this is a good business move,” Horton said. “In a time where we have the pandemic that has affected everyone’s revenue, efficiency and saving money is a good thing.”

So what does that mean in practice? Currently, airport officials purchase carbon offsets, or certificates proving that the buyer is supporting programs designed to reduce emissions elsewhere in the world. These offsets effectively “cancel” out the emissions that DFW is still generating, costing the airport about $30,000 per year to offset 30,000 to 40,000 tons of emissions, according to The Dallas Morning News.

To achieve zero net carbon status, DFW will need to eliminate its remaining sources of emissions and stop purchasing offsets. For carbon that it must continue to emit, the airport can conserve trees and invest in technology that removes it from the atmosphere, according to Horton.

Key sources of emissions include electricity, natural gas used for heating at DFW’s central utilities plant, gas-powered vehicles and the air travel of corporate leaders.

”Those are all of the areas of emissions that the airport is responsible for … but it’s also about our ability to influence other folks who do business with the airport to reduce their footprint as well,” Horton said.

Since DFW made the decision to go carbon neutral in 2016, airport officials have worked with American Airlines to obtain cheaper renewable energy and helped Dallas Love Field enroll in a carbon management program. Clean technology companies and Texan By Nature, a conservation nonprofit founded by former First Lady Laura Bush, have also consulted with the airport on how they have achieved their sustainability goals.

Cleaning up DFW’s act on carbon emissions has ramifications for the entire Metroplex, where most counties do not meet air quality standards set by the Clean Air Act, Horton said. The airport supported a $5 million project to study traffic patterns and find ways to reduce congestion and fuel consumption surrounding DFW.

“By studying those patterns, we can look at ways of making the journey to and from the airport more efficient, more connected, more accessible from an equitable perspective,” Horton said. “We’re trying to actually find ways to solve the congestion issue for the region.”

After the airport achieves net zero emissions, Makovsky expects DFW to turn toward challenges like electrifying aircraft and helping partners like American Airlines find ways to cut their own emissions. Horton has his sights set on achieving zero waste and diverting more of the airport’s trash from landfills, which are quickly filling up across North Texas as more people move to the region.

“It was during COVID that we decided to go net zero,” Makovsky said. “We know we need to be a good steward to not only our local community, but the world, and this is how we’re going to do it.”